‘The Canyons’ Review
Beautiful, rich people casually participating in hideous, terrible things and occasionally having explicit sex -- stop me if you've heard this one before. If it sounds like a Bret Easton Ellis story, that's because it is. 'The Canyons,' scripted by Ellis and directed by Paul Schrader (writer of 'Taxi Driver' and director of 'American Gigolo'), tells the languid story of a manipulative trust fund kid, his failed actress girlfriend (Lindsay Lohan), and the love rectangle that leads to obsession and violence.
'The Canyons' has been buzzed about since its announcement last year -- starring Lohan in what promised to be part of her career comeback (in tandem with the Lifetime film 'Liz and Dick'), and James Deen in what promised to be a star-making turn for the adult film star, the film garnered even more attention with an incredible behind-the-scenes piece in the New York Times that profiled the drama on set between Lohan and director Schrader, and a notorious rejection from the SXSW Film Festival on the grounds of its questionable quality. And then there were the gimmicky faux-trailers released to pique interest, showing little of the film's actual tone or intent, leaving film bloggers and readers baffled about what we should expect. 'The Canyons' had become an object of ridicule before the first (real) trailer was actually released.
But, 'The Canyons' isn't that bad -- it's at least not a film that's so horrible that its failure is interesting to dissect, nor is it a shining example of "what went wrong here?" What went wrong is obvious: a stilted, tired script from Ellis, who re-hashes his typical formula of clean-cut pretty boys with money doing very bad things with the occasional drugs and lurid sex tossed into the mix. Deen, who plays a trust fund kid named Christian, trying to piss off his dad by making movies, shows little range and rarely feels imposing enough for the part of a guy who is manipulating his girlfriend into casual threesomes (and later, a foursome!), having her stalked around town, and eventually becomes unhinged enough to slip into the kind of violence Ellis' Patrick Bateman would have rehearsed in grade school with much more finesse.
Lohan is surprisingly solid in her role as Tara, Christian's girlfriend, showing the sort of emotional range that many thought her incapable of over the years. Is it groundbreaking, award-worthy work? Hardly, but where Lohan's co-stars have all the commitment and none of the talent to work into their roles, Lohan at least has (some) chops to back it up. It's hard not to think of her personal life -- which has been well-documented in tabloids and on the internet for years -- during scenes in which her character laments the rough years in which she struggled to stay afloat, or when Christian snaps and physically assaults her. The key to acting, as famed acting coach Lee Strasberg instructed, is to draw from personal experience and real emotions and find where the life of the actor intersects with the character. Strasberg taught Marilyn Monroe, and we all know how Lohan fancies herself similar to Monroe. Maybe she's learned something.
Then again, Lohan's performance isn't that good, and perhaps only seems exceptional given the vacuum of talent around her. Deen is one body-waxing strip removed from your typical Valley Girl, and if you were to take a shot of tequila every time he says "babe," you'd end up in a coma with 30 minutes left to go. Co-stars Nolan Gerard Funk and Amanda Brooks round out the love rectangle with forgettable, bland performances. Funk looks like a former Disney channel child star, with none of the charisma or eagerness.
The theme of 'The Canyons' is some half-baked idea about how no one is going to movie theaters anymore because we're all too busy making our own movies, directing our lives or participating as actors. In the world of 'The Canyons,' you're either a director or an actor, a theme that we're bludgeoned with when Christian visits his psychiatrist (played by Gus Van Sant, of all people) and insists that he doesn't want to be an actor. He wants to direct the lives of everyone, and when Tara crosses a line and tries to hop into the director's chair, well, you know how it goes because you've seen this idea enacted better in much more thoughtful films. And if you didn't get this mediocre attempt at something resembling thematic resonance and self-awareness, Schrader intersperses random shots of old, out-of-business movie theaters. Look at all these theaters being ignored because you are watching 'The Canyons' OnDemand from your couch!
Bret Easton Ellis' attempts at satirizing privileged, beautiful white people in L.A. hardly read as satire -- is the dialogue intentionally vapid and stilted because these characters are so superficial and empty? Even if the answer is yes, it reads as unintentionally bad and laughable; worse when you consider the meta qualities: Lohan playing a failed actress and Deen throwing out lines about how he's just making a movie because he has the money and nothing better to do. 'The Canyons' is an accomplished failure at best; at worst, a mediocre and shockingly banal meditation on the bad that pretty, bored rich people do, with something about how no one goes to movies anymore tacked on as an afterthought. Maybe the greatest trick 'The Canyons' pulled is that the film itself might make you want to stop going to the movies, but I guess that's why it's headed to VOD.