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More than zero…but not by much: “The Canyons”

August 4, 2013

The_Canyons_poster

So, here we got The Canyons, the eagerly-anticipated (uh…okay, we’ll go with it) collaboration between Paul Schrader—writer of such classic films as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and director of moody, existential studies like Light Sleeper and Auto Focus—and Bret Easton Ellis, who wrote Less Than Zero and American Psycho. I don’t know any kind of a joint where these two wildly-divergent personalities would have met, but presumably it’s the kind of place where patrons watch True Blood and punch themselves in the junk every time there is a sex scene. Alas, if there is one truly eagerly-anticipated thing about The Canyons it’s the return of Lindsay Lohan to feature-film acting. How does she mix with this already-mismatched alchemy? Read on and I’ll tell you…

So in the telling, The Canyons is a fairly stock piece of L.A. anomie. We follow two couples: Christian and Tara (porn star James Deen and Lohan) and Ryan and Gina (Nolan Funk—nice name, dude—and Amanda Brooks). Christian and Tara are the jaded, dissolute couple, while Ryan and Gina are the relatively unspoiled couple. See where we’re going with this? Christian and Tara have fun by inviting strangers over to engage in kinky sex with them. Ryan and Gina have fun by, I don’t know, probably watching Top Chef or something.

Okay, that’s not true. This is a Paul Schrader movie, so nobody has fun doing anything.

The couples are entwined in ways that make power dynamics impossible, since Christian, a trust-fund brat, is producing a low-budget horror flick that Ryan is starring in. Ryan landed the gig because Gina is Christian’s personal assistant. Unknown to Christian, however, is the fact that Ryan and Tara were romantically-involved before she made the coldly mercenary decision to trade up for dudes who don’t eat Ramen noodles at least three nights a week.

As the movie unspools, these four will play a variety of power games with one another. Ryan tries to win back Tara; Christian orchestrates Ryan’s replacement on the film, forcing him to blow one of the producers to keep his job; Ryan uses his relationship with Christian’s usual booty-call to try and poison Tara against Christian; and during a pivotal foursome, Tara cajoles Christian into taking a blowjob from the other dude.

Now, all of this should, in theory, be kinda trashy fun. And it might have been if the movie was content to be a play on the moral vacuity of overprivledged L.A. millennials, and had the presence of mind to toy with the way that social networking and flexible sexual identities have impacted age-old games of sexual one-upmanship. But, ah, it doesn’t.

Ultimately, the partnering of Schrader and Ellis is a bust, as nether of them is suited for the telling of this story. Schrader, raised in a strict Calvinist home (he never even saw a movie until he was in college) is good at sketching the moral deterioration of flawed people, but has no sense joy—this is a man, remember, who made Auto Focus, the true story about Bob Crane’s sex-addiction, into the least sexy move ever. As a result the hedonism of this movie looks as tedious as anything else.

Ellis, for his part, while good at sketching vacant, rich kids (not a huge feat, that) can’t create anything like a real character. As a result, the characters who’re motivated by love—Ryan and Christian’s hookup—are simply baffling. No one in this movie has any discernible humanity to fall in love with. Watching Tara—brittle, bitchy, imperious—it’s impossible to believe she ever shared a loving relationship with anyone, never mind enchanting a man enough to lead him to try and match Christian’s personal ruthlessness.

The Canyons was funded, in part, by a Kickstarter campaign, and was made on a shoestring budget, but Schrader still manages to make a visual impression with the film. L.A. is place that veers between  gaudily-lit, unpopulated nighttimes and cheap, cruddy locales blasted by the unforgiving daylight.

Now, it would be mean-spirited fun to report that Lohan manages to self-immolate once again with this performance, but the truth is she’s no better or worse than anyone else in this movie. Like the rest of the cast, she has one note to play, and she plays it perfectly competently. As does Deen, who has garnered the lion’s share of publicity for this film. He basically just has to be “smirking asshole” for most of the story and pretty much manages it.

The movie ends on a note of mild apocalypse, suggesting that now everyone has been irredeemably corrupted, but given the fact there was never much there to corrupt, it’s hardly a gut-punch.

In the end, The Canyons is a noble failure. Schrader’s effort—to make a movie outside the traditional avenues of funding, hiring risky actors to carry it—is worthwhile, but the story he chose to tell simply wasn’t the right one.

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