"When was the last time you went to a movie in a theater? A movie that really meant something to you?" asks Lindsey Lohan, her raspy, waxing voice introducing the most intriguing thread in Paul Schrader's "The Canyons." The thinking is given little breathing room in the low-rent drama, a another tale of privilege, paranoia and post-coital tristesse from screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis. It's a return to the well for the "American Psycho" author, a gambit that might have worked had the script transformed Ellis-isms into a resonant commentary on the death of the theatrical experience. Instead, such ideas are grafted on, like most of the movie's pivotal moments. "The Canyons" has all the elegance and depth of a daytime soap opera, peppered with flashes of name brand nudity for a tantalizing hook. It's a slog. (Read our candid interview with Paul Schrader).
Christian (porn Renaissance man James Deen) is "The Canyon's" Patrick Bateman stand-in, a trust fund baby living the Hollywood high life with his sexpot girlfriend Tara (Lohan). A lengthy and meandering intro reveals the two to be tangentially related to the movie business — but as Schrader alludes to, that's pretty much everyone in Los Angeles. Christian and Tara dine with Gina (Amanda Brooks), Christian's assistant, and her boyfriend Ryan, who just landed the lead role in Christian's upcoming slasher movie. As his own myth-maker, Christian regales the table with memories from his bedroom, which he and Tara often share with randoms found on an Adult Friend Finder app. Despite going on and on and on and on (another nod to the "real" L.A.?), Schrader is able to coax a bit of smarmy charm out of his main quartet. It's watchable. Unfortunately, the script hands off the movie to Deen, whose transparently one-note performance can't sustain a narrative feature.
The real surprise is Lohan, whose baggage meshes perfectly with Tara, a character drowning in anxiety. The incestuous nature of "the biz" is getting under her skin; Ryan, a former flame, is back in her life and back in her bed. Her vapid affair further provokes Christian, a psychopath who quickly slips from DTF to WTF as his stranglehold over Tara, his movie and his dream situation loosens. Despite sharing her affections with Ryan, Tara is initially game for Christian's sexual antics (Schrader guarantees a profit for "The Canyons" by stripping down his lead actress on several occasions). She combats her psychological deterioration by throwing more at it, wrangling together a kaleidoscopic foursome at the height of her mental breakdown. Only when Christian snaps does she feel much needed whiplash. Apparently coupling up with a known date rapist isn't as romantic as it sounds.
If only "The Canyons" had time for Lohan's Tara. Too often, the schizophrenic script steers the action back towards Christian, who stands to have an actual problem. He's a character born from shock value and Schrader's camera feels disinterested with him. Christian blurts out off-color remarks and belittles anyone in his life who lends him a hand. The film's most mystifying scene is shared between the horny producer wannabe and his therapist, played by Gus van Sant. Their meeting is setup with an earlier remark, where Christian tells Tara there's nothing he couldn't tell her, that there's no such thing as a private life in today's society. When Christian does meet with his therapist — a requirement for his daily allowance — he dances in circles. He's hollow. It's not that delusional behavior can't be compelling, it's that "The Canyons's" stiff dialogue can't do it justice. In Deen's hands, the movie is stuck in cinematic rigor mortis.
Although conceived for VOD — the trailers remind that the film can be enjoyed "from the privacy of your own home" — "The Canyons" earns points purely for its vibe and can-do spirit. The murky, flavorless cinematography feels intentional, mirroring the pornographic movies Christian clearly dreams of living in and with which the film's actual stars are fully accustomed. The synth score by Broken Social Scene member Brendan Canning adds a sonic texture to the shlocky ambiance. Schrader is still a competent director, but he's forced to whittle down his style for micro-budget shooting. He succeeds, striking the iron with montages of haunting, dilapidated movie theaters and just the right close ups of Lohan's frailest moments.
By the time Christian's eyes fill murderous death stares, "The Canyons" has devolved into the Friedberg and Seltzer spoof version of an Ellis story. The "post-theatrical" movie-going experiment provides a nostalgic meta-commentary on an age where a movie meant something, yet the film ultimately seems disinterested in its most resonant ideas, all grime and no girth. Schrader clearly wants something more out of his characters. Ellis's script works tirelessly to get Lohan to show her boobs. Whatever the future of movies might be, it's unlikely you'll ever be nostalgic for this one.
SCORE: 5.3 / 10