The cast is excellent across the board, but the film really
belongs to McDormand and Beckinsale.
McDormand is perfectly cast as a woman who is old enough to have a full-grown
son, and sexy and appealing enough to make Alex's (and Ian's) attraction
to her believable. She flows effortlessly between aging hippie, producer-under-pressure,
concerned mother, and passionate lover, and McDormand's Jane is refreshingly
unapologetic (a rarity for this kind of female character in Hollywood).
Beckinsale is also well-cast as the conflicted Alex; she's
so convincing as a woman torn between what she wants and what she thinks she
should want that you can't help sympathizing with her character even when
she's cheating on her boyfriend.
Bale as the universal conflicted son trying to make sense of his
relationship with his mother and his girlfriend is also impressive, as is McElhone's
Sara, who manages to aggressively pursue Sam without alienating the audience.
Most reviews of the film have glossed over Alex and Jane's relationship, dismissing their kisses as merely "experimentation" and focusing on Alex's interest in Ian, but I want to offer a more radical interpretation of the text: that Alex's journey in Laurel Canyon is really about her attraction to Jane.
Jane's bisexuality is treated very matter-of-factly in the film (so much so that the only explicit reference to it is when Sam mentions one of Jane's previous lovers, Veronica), and although it isn't stated that Alex has never been with women before, we are led to believe this is true. So it is interesting to note that both times Alex and Jane kiss, Alex is the initiator, not Jane — in the pool, Jane holds back until Alex comes over to kiss her, and in the hotel room, when Ian draws Alex in for a kiss, Alex reaches out and draws Jane into their liaison, running her hand along Jane's thigh and then turning away from Ian altogether to kiss Jane.
The chemistry between Alex and Jane (and Alex and Ian) builds slowly and realistically, so that when Alex and Jane finally kiss, you're emotionally rooting for them, even if intellectually you're recoiling at the the thought that this woman is kissing her boyfriend's mother.
While Alex and Ian discuss their attraction to one another a few times in the film, Alex and Jane never do; indeed, Alex avoids any acknowledgement of what is transpiring between her and Jane, as if it's too deep and dangerous to voice. Having a relationship with Ian is morally wrong, but still conventional in its own way; a relationship with Sam's mother is so taboo it's beyond merely "unconventional," so the fact that Jane gets involved with her anyway indicates that her desire was too powerful to resist.
Even the poster for the movie emphasizes the relationship between Jane and Alex over the others, featuring the two women prominently in the front with only a smaller Ian standing between them — and Alex's boyfriend just a small image at the bottom.
Watching the movie through this lens, Ian begins to look like merely a go-between, a conduit for Alex to get to Jane through semi-conventional means without appearing that Jane is who she is really after. Although in the end Alex tells Sam that she wants him, not "them" (Ian and Jane), the fact that moments before she explained her liaison with Jane with the passionate plea "I didn't think!" betrays her true desire: when she's leading with her heart, not her head, she wants Jane.
But since she still ultimately follows her head, not her heart, Alex reverts to damage control with Sam in the end, telling him "[the encounter with Jane and Ian] didn't mean anything to me" and "I don't feel anything for them, either of them." While this experience may have opened her up, she ultimately retreated back into the safety of the conventional life.
Because the film is so effective at drawing us in and getting
us to care about Alex and Sam's journey, the abrupt ending is highly unsatisfying:
Sam and Jane resolve some of their issues, but the fate of Alex and Sam's
relationship is left hanging. Cholodenko states in the DVD commentary that she
deliberately left the film open-ended as an homage to old movies, but that isn't
much consolation to viewers.
On the other hand, the open ending does leave room for lots of different interpretations, including the possibility that Alex eventually admits her true desire isn't Sam after all, but Jane. It may not be the conventional interpretation of the film, but as Laurel Canyon demonstrates, convention doesn't have much sway over the emotional response.