What's your damage, Lindsay Lohan?
LiLo appears to give that question an answer as disaffected, super-mascaraed socialite Tara in Paul Schrader's epic fizzle of a film The Canyons: her damage is something to be exploited for drama (certainly by Lohan herself) as if she were a kind of latter-day female Dennis Hopper. The only problem is that she doesn’t possess any of Hopper's jittery, live-wire spark, his inventory of manic quirks. What you get from Lohan in The Canyons is energy-sapped ennui that looks like a bad parody of an Antonioni movie starring people who've never actually watched an Antonioni movie. There's no train-wreck appeal in seeing The Canyons. Only boredom and the dawning of a final realization that our inexplicably enduring interest in Lohan far surpasses her actual talent.
Schrader, and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho), make their agenda in The Canyons clear in its title. It's the topographical and moral opposite of The Hills. The MTV show was glammed-up meaninglessness about hot young things buying stuff and getting into petty squabbles. The Canyons also focuses on hot young things (one of them, James Deen, a real-life porn star!), but to reveal the dark, even psychotic, moral decay at the center of their lives.
Deen's Christian is another of Ellis' sociopathic twentysomething trust-fund brats — Patrick Bateman with a smartphone. He films himself and others having sex with his girlfriend Tara (Lohan), who he plans to cast opposite a naïve Hollywood newcomer named Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk) in a movie he's about to start shooting. He's young, rich, and has nothing better to do, so why not make a movie? Who cares if he has no idea how to make one?
On the side, Christian keeps another bed partner, Gina (Amanda Brooks), who he has sex with but violently refuses to kiss. Like everything in the movie, Schrader and Ellis' ideas are abundantly clear and on the surface: Christian wants instant gratification but not intimacy, and it's hard not to see him as their shallow commentary on the millennial generation as a whole. Schrader deploys a dizzying array of distancing devices to keep us at bay, including the projection of neon lights on Deen, Lohan, and Funk's nubile bodies during a group sex scene that has "Razzie Nomination" written all over it.
The web of trysts between these four characters is pretty complex, and on the surface it seems none of the characters possess any emotional investment in their hook-ups. But, of course, they really do. Like the characters in one of Schrader's favorite movies, Jean Renoir’s masterpiece The Rules of the Game, they've actively tried — and failed — to deaden themselves emotionally in order to deal with the meaninglessness of their lives. Finally, an eruption of violence shatters the love polygon once one of the characters decides that he can only find meaning in petty jealousy. These are people who, like Renoir said of his characters at the time of The Rules of the Game's 1939 release, "dance on the edge of a volcano." The only problem is that, unlike in Renoir's film, this is a volcano that produces no heat.
Schrader started as a film critic until making the jump in the mid '70s to screenwriting (The Yakuza, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and then directing with Blue Collar and Hardcore, the latter an acid portrait of a father devastated when he discovers his daughter has become a porn actress. He followed up Hardcore with American Gigolo. These were dynamic depictions of the intersection of sex, money, and morality. But Schrader's always had a clinical streak, and he's shown throughout his career a penchant for having great ideas but not knowing how to dramatize them, for being able to deconstruct movie tropes like a critic without being able to reassemble them for emotional satisfaction. He was as washed up as Lohan when he got around to making The Canyons, and together they've made a film that has us wondering why we ever cared about them in the first place.
Lohan wears her hair up in a bun and equips herself with ridiculous bangle jewelry, as if she's just stepped off the set of Liz & Dick. Deen, an actor who's better at "doing" than speaking, seems to recite his lines phonetically. And Schrader's direction feels like that of a UCLA sophomore with a running bar tab at the Chateau Marmont. It's utterly lifeless.
The moral rot of Spring Breakers is given pungent urgency by all that neon and Skrillex — you get caught up in the girls' crime spree and are even implicated in it yourself, because that film throbs with life. The Canyons doesn't even have a pulse. It's not so bad it's good. It's not destined to be a camp classic. It certainly will do nothing for Lohan's career. It's just bad. All it has going for it is an apt title that applies to the movie itself: a place you fall into until you hit rock bottom.
What do you think? Tell Christian Blauvelt directly on Twitter @Ctblauvelt and read more of his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes!
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