In the title song of her 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon, Joni Mitchell paid tribute to the hippie chicks who'd spent the '60s baking bread and gathering flowers and writing songs and "sewing lace on widows' weeds, and filigree on leaf and vine." Laurel Canyon, where L.A.'s artists and musicians tended to nest, was both a place and a state of mind ' a hazy, lazy, crazy mixture of tuning out and tuning in. But that was then, and this is now. Welcome, therefore, to Laurel Canyon, Lisa Chodolenko's tribute to a hippie chick who's kept on keeping on. As embodied by Frances McDormand with every fiber of her being, Jane is a record producer who rolls her own joints, swims in the nude and goes through men the way she lives her life ' full-throttle. Think Goldie Hawn in The Banger Sisters if Hawn had somehow pulled off the role.
McDormand pulls it off by not overplaying. Instead, she lets her natural authority ' her throaty laugh, her toothy smile, her crack timing ' work its magic. The movie pits Jane against her son, Sam (Christian Bale), a med school grad who's returned to California with his fiancÃe, Alex (Kate Beckinsale), to start a residency. Actually, it pits Sam against his mother. After all these years, he still can't believe how far from June Cleaver she is. Like Michael J. Fox in "Family Ties," Sam has rebelled from his permissive upbringing by straightening his laces. He and Alex are so straitlaced, in fact, that they play Scrabble on the plane. But Alex, who's finishing a dissertation on the sexual behavior of fruit flies, is almost immediately seduced by the casual chaos of Jane's life, not to mention the casual come-ons of Jane's much-younger boyfriend.
It's all very Rocky Horror, Sam and Alex taking the place of Brad and Janet, newly dropped on the Sweet Transvestite's doorstep. And Laurel Canyon, which Chodolenko also wrote, follows some familiar paths on its way to a mother-and-child reunion. But along the way, it has some of the intuitive feel of those '70s films everyone always wishes we could return to ' Shampoo, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail. It's not as good as those films, if only because it doesn't dig as deep. Also, Beckinsale is stuck in that old role of the brainy girl with glasses who learns how to let her hair down and live a little ' i.e., take a "midnight swim" with Jane and her boyfriend. Horrified by his mother's lifestyle, Sam lashes out, calls her "developmentally disabled." But is she developmentally disabled, or is she just free? Or is she just another lady of the canyon?