Last January, Stephen Rodrick of the New York Times Magazine published “Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie,” a must-read of entertainment journalism. The article drew clicks with its intimate account of Lohan’s erratic behavior on the set of micro-budgeted indie film The Canyons, but it wasn’t just another tabloid-style attention grab.
Set against the background of the rise of Kickstarter — a campaign partially funded the production — Rodrick’s story had a rich cast of characters: a once-revered filmmaker trying to revive his career by making a movie outside the system; a once-hip novelist trying to jumpstart his new career as a screenwriter; and a young porn star dipping his toes in the waters of “legitimate” cinema. Swept up in the cyclone of Lohan’s paparazzi-mobbed life, each struggled to stay true to his own objective.
If only The Canyons had told that story. It might have been a worthy comeback for director Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
Instead, The Canyons has a way-too-rote erotic-thriller narrative scripted by Bret Easton Ellis, who explored similar material with more edge in his breakout novels Less Than Zero and American Psycho. On top of a Cinemax-ready plot, Schrader and Ellis have draped an atmosphere of nihilism and ennui, with arty shots of boarded-up movie theaters and characters who make zeitgeisty pronouncements such as “Nobody has a private life anymore.” The sum of these ingredients is, sadly, neither a camp fest nor a compelling drama. It’s stagy and inert.
James Deen plays Christian, who lives on his trust fund in an exquisite modern house — a more charismatic presence than any person in the movie — and keeps former model Tara (Lohan) in luxury. His hobby is seeking out additional twentysomethings with whom he and Tara can enjoy carefully orchestrated threesomes and foursomes.
As if it weren’t obvious, Christian’s shrink (director Gus Van Sant) eventually spells out the character for us: What Christian really gets off on is control. That control is threatened when circumstances bring Tara back in contact with the hunky wannabe (Nolan Funk) whose company she abandoned for Christian’s comfortable lifestyle. Christian’s perfect porn prop starts showing vague, flailing signs of having a mind of her own.
The Canyons is no train wreck. Schrader uses the same chilly restraint he showed in American Gigolo — albeit now on the cheap — to keep the sex scenes out of the realm of softcore. (The notorious foursome is shot with an ethereal beauty and little flesh on display.) Lohan breaks down quite convincingly, and Deen mostly pulls off “sinister rich jerk” — though he suffers enormously by any comparison with Christian Bale, who defined the Ellis sociopath in American Psycho.
The real problem is that these characters lack nuance and depth — humanity, in short. Christian is never more than a textbook control freak, Tara never more than a textbook emotional basket case. No one in the film has motivations that transcend the obvious. Like Sofia Coppola with The Bling Ring, Ellis and Schrader seem to think that placing vacuous people on screen and giving them dialogue about social media qualifies their work as “commentary.” It’s no such thing — or, at least, no more than Bravo reality shows are weekly incisive critiques of American affluence.
With those shots of defunct movie palaces, Schrader introduces a second subtext: The rise of digital distribution methods — such as video on demand and iTunes, where you can currently see The Canyons — has Hollywood teetering on the edge of an abyss. Rodrick’s story explored that subtext in detail. But it’s a mere opportunistic aside in this movie, which sidesteps tawdriness only to succumb to torpor.