‘Laurel Canyon’ bridges emotional gulf

When listening to the noises in the opening credits of “Laurel Canyon,” we expect to be introduced to the movie with a passionate love scene. We are greeted with sex, but the words love and passionate certainly do not apply. We get the feeling that Sam and Alex (Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale, respectively) say exactly what they do not mean, not only bottling up their emotions, but almost completely neglecting them. This coldness and isolation is one of the film’s constant themes and provides the core conflict between east and west coast attitudes. In the following scene, a cocktail party with an almost comic exaggeration of eastern snobbery, Alex’s father chides Sam for wanting to do his medical residency in California, telling him that he shouldn’t “waste his time on the hopeless cases.” (Sam is a graduate of Harvard Medical School and traveling to the best psychiatric program in the country.)

While in California, the couple stays at the home of Sam’s mother Jane (Frances McDormand), a record producer. Sam expects the house to be empty, but instead finds his mother and a British band in residence, recording a single in Jane’s home studio. As Sam and Alex enter her expensive house, the discomfort is palpable. Sam worries to no end about how Alex will react to Jane and Alex finds herself transplanted from the familiar world of motivated medical students to Jane’s world of carefree, bohemian musicians. With their pursed lips, short replies and forced smiles, we see Sam and Alex again unable to connect with each other or anyone around them.

The movie really takes off when Sam meets Sara, a charming and attractive Israeli medical student (Natascha McElhone). Meanwhile, Alex stays at Jane’s house to finish her dissertation in genomics, which gradually falls by the wayside as she becomes drawn into Jane’s world. One of the most powerful scenes comes after Sam gets drunk at a party; in a complete change in character, Alex has a ménage à trois in the pool with Jane and Ian, the lead singer of the band and Jane’s boyfriend. The camera zooms in on the group as they lie in bed together, Ian snoring heavily.

The most important theme in the movie is communication, which is explored through a variety of techniques. The first is clearly Jane’s frankness to everyone with whom she comes in contact. Her frequent conversations with her producer and with Ian become comical, leaving nothing to the imagination. Jane has a habit of talking outside when she wants to tell someone something truly important, doing everything she can to try to open up channels of communication. Sara is also a very interesting character in this regard; not only is she very frank (though not as audacious as Jane), but her somewhat imperfect English is used to bring out hidden meanings and underlying thoughts. In a scene between Sara, Sam and Alex, Sara asks Alex about her dissertation, which involves a lot of complex genomic data analysis. Sara tells her that Alex could never write a dissertation because it sounds “so tedious.” Alex quickly snaps back, “No, it’s not meaningless!” In the end, it is only after Sam has opened up to Sara, and Alex has opened up to Jane that they can finally open up to each other. The final reconciliation between Jane and Sam is a powerful moment in the movie – ultimately, Sam’s relationship with his mother is equally, if not more important, than his relationship with Alex.

The shots of southern California do an excellent job of capturing the warm, laidback atmosphere that contrasts so drastically with the lives of Sam and Alex. Although the plot itself is rather uninteresting, the three principal characters (especially Jane) are so sympathetic and well-developed that the audience cares much more about what they say and what they feel than what external events happen to them. And although the very end is vague and confusing, there is still a sense of closure.