As a virile, Tarzan-like Jane, McDormand struts and preens like a famished jungle cat, high in her hillside retreat in the titular location. Laurel Canyon, we surmise from the evidence of this film, is a classic hip artist's haven in Southern California, a place of sex, drugs and peaceful easy feelings. In other words, it's a true 1970s paradise, an eternal sunset over the Pacific.
McDormand's Jane shares a well-tousled bed with Ian, her lover and protegee (Alessandro Nivola). As it happens, Ian is the same age as her son Sam (Christian Bale), a newly minted, humorless psychiatrist who is engaged to Alex, an uptight scientist (Kate Beckinsale). Trouble arrives in this den of sensuality when Sam and Alex arrive, fresh from Harvard, to stay in Laurel Canyon while Sam starts his residency.
We can't imagine why Sam is so embarrassed by a Mom as cool as Jane, so it's difficult to warm up to Bale's stiff, priggish character. But the film really belongs to McDormand, who so thoroughly embraces the role that she manages to reinvest the act of smoking cigarettes with some of the sensuality it had in a less enlightened, black-and-white era. Her Jane is unashamed to be a carnal, middle-aged rock and roller, but she also has to find a way to build maternal bridges with her blushing, resentful son.