NEWLY ARRIVED in Los Angeles, Sam (Christian Bale) and his fiancee, Alex (Kate Beckinsale), seem set for life. Just out of Harvard, Sam has a psychiatric residency. Alex, also a Harvard grad, is studying for a PhD. They're in love and about to be married.

Their first mistake is spending a few days with Sam's hippified mother, Jane (Frances McDormand), a record producer who's working on an album with Ian (Alessandro Nivola), a British (and much younger) rock singer who happens to be her boyfriend. Sam, who disapproves of his mother's drug-infused lifestyle, intends to move to another place as soon as possible. But he stays too long, it turns out.

Things are in flux -- or threatening to be -- from the get-go. Sam's a bit too consumed with his work to pay attention to Alex's needs. And what little he has left, he invests in his awfully attractive Israeli colleague, Sara (Natascha McElhone).

For her PhD, Alex is studying the reproductive habits of fruit flies and, not surprisingly for most of us, she's having a devil of a time getting down to the books, which makes it even harder for her to resist the free love atmosphere around her.

Jane is an executive hippie who smokes joints as she mixes records, gets up when she feels like it and spends downtime in the pool with Ian. She likes girls, too. Ian likes Alex. Jane likes Alex. But there's the pesky moral consideration.

Meanwhile, things get hotter between Sam and Sara. Suddenly, the Harvard lovebirds don't seem so set for life or emotionally settled anymore.

There's not much more to "Laurel Canyon" than that. It's all about relationship entanglements. And the locales are pretty much restricted to Jane's house, Sam's office and Sam's car (where he has some of his increasingly steamier discussions with Sara).

Yet, thanks to the performances and the general looseness of the script, the movie is more appealing than it has any business being.

Perhaps it's the almost antiquated notion of utopia that Ian and Jane attempt to pursue, and the delicate but inexorable way that Alex becomes seduced by both of them. Is this what Alex wants? She's too hypnotized to know, but it's fascinating to watch.

For another thing, no one's hard on the eyes. This is a beautiful-people movie. But the difference is, these beauties have ideas, ambitions, attitudes and anxieties. They're not anorexic models bingeing at night, or unemployed actors thinking about head shots.

In this group of eccentrics and half-realized souls, none is more interesting than Jane. Almost completely uninhibited, she speaks her mind in any situation, whether she's arguing with Ian in the recording studio or bickering poolside with her sanctimonious son. And she's completely at ease with her own sexuality. She doesn't act indebted to Ian for his studly body, and assumes he's just as privileged to be with her as she is with him. For McDormand, this is another memorable role to add to a gathering pile of them, including Elaine Miller, the protective Mom in "Almost Famous," and Marge Gunderson, the unorthodox and very pregnant detective in "Fargo." As Jane, she lives her role so comfortably, so fully, she'll make you remember her character long after the movie has faded from memory.

LAUREL CANYON (R, 103 minutes) -- Contains drug use, mature sexual themes, obscenity and nudity. Area theaters.

Frances McDormand gives another fine performance in "Laurel Canyon."