Movie Review: The Canyons

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I normally don’t go in for celebrity gossip stuff. Not even a little bit. But a few months back, when I saw a Sunday New York Times Magazine cover story with the headline, Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan In Your Movie, well, I couldn’t resist. Lohan is such a famous train wreck, and having a Times-caliber writer and reporter, as opposed to somebody from, say, Us Weekly, writing about her promised an interesting and in-depth look at the way her dysfunctionality actually plays out on a working movie set.

The story didn’t disappoint, either, offering an honest, sad, sometimes hilarious portrayal of how Lohan, regarded by everyone from the story’s writer to the film’s director as an incredibly talented actress, is just as difficult to work with as you’d imagine. She was chronically late, sometimes didn’t show up to work at all (threatening the film’s very existence), and was a tremendous pain in the ass to work with throughout the process, even though the role seemed to be a sort of last chance for her. However, the film’s director, Paul Schrader (who wrote my favorite Scorsese film, Taxi Driver), decided that her talent made it worth the trouble (in part because her notorious reputation made her the only actress of her caliber they could get at the tiny salary they had for the micro-budgeted film). He’s even been quoted as saying he would work with her again.

The magazine story piqued my interest in the film, partly because of the watching-a-plane-crash-into-the-side-of-a-mountain Lohan effect, but also for several other reasons: the Taxi Driver connection; the script being written by Bret Easton Ellis, a talented writer and famous asshole; and the mainstream film debut of porn star James Deen (come on, everyone’s curious when a porn star tries to act for real). So, when the film became available on iTunes (it was simultaneously released in theaters and on view-on-demand), I downloaded it.

Sadly, it’s not much of a movie, which I probably should have expected. Its milieu is the film business, and the shots of crumbled theaters that open the movie and are sprinkled between scenes seem to augur the decay and dissolution of that business. But the movie itself doesn’t really address that topic, except to say that with the movie business in the hands of characters like these, it’s no surprise that the film industry has turned into a shit show.

The plot takes the shape of a neo-noir thriller, in which Christian (Deen), a trust fund baby who produces movies so he can tell his father (who we never meet) that he’s doing something with his time, obsessively tracks his girlfriend (Lohan), while she has an affair with Ryan (Nolan Funk), the lead actor in the low budget slasher film Christian is producing. The bulk of the film consists of two kinds of scenes: explicit, orgiastic sexual encounters between Lohan and Deen and whoever they happen to find on the internet to join them; and stilted conversations between two characters who have set up those conversations as ways to draw out the intentions of the other characters. And then of course, ***SPOILER*** somebody goes psycho and cuts somebody else to pieces, because Bret Easton Ellis.

These machinations are, frankly, pretty juvenile, and the screenplay is both written and acted in a clunky, unbelievable fashion. Deen doesn’t really do anything special, but he’s acceptable, and that’s the best you can say about any of the actors. Most of the reviews I’ve read for the film have touted Lohan’s performance as the best thing about the movie, but I think they’ve let her personal narrative influence them too much. I felt like she looked like she was acting–which to me is the opposite of what a good performance does. And Funk as Ryan is totally wooden.

You know what The Canyons reminded me of a little bit? Remember Cruel Intentions, the remake of Les Liasons dangereuses that was done up for the teen set and starred young Ryan Phillippe, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Reese Witherspoon? It had the same sort of conniving characters and erotic overtones, though nowhere near the same explicitness, as The Canyons. I liked Cruel Intentions when it came out–I was in high school at the time, a part of the target audience and not a very smart film viewer–but recently came across it on cable TV and after about ten minutes concluded that the writing and acting were actually both awful.

The Canyons isn’t quite that bad, but it’s in the ballpark. To put it another way: I recently read a book about country rock pioneer Gram Parsons in which he called the music of the Eagles “plastic dry fuck,” and I think that term describes this film. It didn’t offend me in any way, it just seemed vapid and pointless, like it had been lying out in the sun too long and had its brain baked away. Kind of like Hollywood in general–which I guess was the point of the film all along.

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