The energy of this steamy and entertaining film flows from a time-honored dramatic device: Uptight character comes under the influence of a freewheeler who causes Mr.Uptight's world to go to hell. In this case, the tightly wound figure is expanded to a couple, and the catalyst that serves to unravel them is the guy's mom, who's one hot momma. Given the neat setup that keeps Laurel Canyon clicking along, it's somewhat disconcerting, though, that the abundantly talented writer-director Lisa Cholodenko couldn't come up with an ending.

Frances McDormand, light years away from Fargo's Marge Gundersen, plays Jane, the free-spirited mom who lives in Laurel Canyon, a West Coast Boho enclave receptive to alternative lifestyles. A veteran record producer, Jane is trying to come up with a hit single for Ian (Alessandro Nivola), her much younger pop-singer boyfriend. Into this weed scented household walks her son Sam (Christian Bale) and fiance Alex (Kate Beckinsale), both Harvard Medical School grads come west to complete their studies. Jane had promised to deliver the house vacant, but complications involving a previous husband have forced her to change plans. Quicker than Jane can roll a joint, prim Kate gets down with the resident hedonists, joining a kinky pile-on at the Chateau Marmont that includes Ian and Jane. Left adrift, Sam falls prey to the suave seductions of medical colleague Sara (Natascha McElhone.) In the scene closest to a resolution, Jane and Sam, who has fashioned his life as a rebuke to his mother, attempt to mend bridges.

Last out with High Art, Cholodenko has pulled finely calibrated ensemble work from her perfectly cast actors who, despite varied backgrounds, are on the same page and bring a rare authenticity to their interactions. Photographed in autumnal golds, McDormand snuggles into her role like a velour wrap, creating a middle-aged pleasure-seeker determined never to grow up. Bale sheds his American Psycho sadist to plumb new depths as a son who, beneath the carapace, remains a wounded boy. The question the movie leaves unanswered: Will he resist McElhone's white-coated siren? The underappreciated Nivola, who apparently does his own singing, looks like a dissipated angel. Only Beckinsale appears curiously drab and small among these charisma-drenched actors.

One quibble: Med students with the physical attributes of Bale and McElhone severely strain credibility--McElhone's hair upkeep alone would be incompatible with an all-nighter cracking the books. But if viewers can ride with the non ending--literally, a submersion in the pool--Laurel Canyon should make quite a splash.

--Erica Abeel