As 'Georgia Rule' Opens, We Wonder If Lindsay Lohan Can Act, In Rewind

Tabloid-fodder actress walks fine line between successful adult career, self-destructive behavior.

You gotta feel sorry for the publicists working on "Georgia Rule."

As the movie opens Friday, it's best known for the behind-the-scenes drama surrounding one of its stars, one Miss Lindsay Lohan, who was taken to task by the head of the production company for "heavy partying." If the film does well, it could be a positive step in the tabloid queen's quest to shift the spotlight from her private life to her professional work. So we thought we'd step back from the booze, the boyfriends and the battles to take a look at Lohan's career and ask the question, "But can she act?"

The critical standard for child actors is pretty low. Aside from a few prodigies like Jodie Foster and Jackie Cooper, few juvenile thespians mature into successful adult actors. It's far more likely that they'll fade into obscurity or follow the sad-but-often-true Hollywood cliché of lapsing into self-destructive behavior of the "E! True Hollywood Story" variety. Lohan's been walking a fine line.

After doing commercial and soap-opera work as a young child, Lohan made her movie debut at age 11, playing separated-at-birth identical twins who meet and plot to reunite their parents in Disney's 1998 remake of "The Parent Trap." Aside from the requisite cute factor, Lohan convincingly gave the two girls distinctive personalities. She even managed to master a believable British accent as well as the forced-imitation accents they both take on to fool their estranged parents.

Lohan earned mostly positive reviews, and "The Parent Trap" did fairly well at the box office, but it would be five years until Lindsay returned to the big screen in another Disney remake, "Freaky Friday" (2003). In the mystical body-swap tale, 15-year-old Anna and her 40-something mom, Tess (Jamie Lee Curtis), suddenly find themselves inhabiting each other's skin.

Gritting teeth through ingrained cynicism, grizzled critics had to note that the acting made the stale tale seem fresh. Lohan again proved adept at playing two roles: the somewhat sullen, punky girl with a band and a crush on a motorcycle-riding older boy (scandalous for a Disney film) and the Anna possessed by Tess, an uptight authority figure who comes to realize that her seemingly rebellious daughter ain't so bad after all (Anna has her own epiphany while trapped in her mother's frame).

In 2004's "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen," Lohan plays Lola Cep, an artsy New York gal who gets relocated to the boring New Jersey suburbs, where she competes for attention against the very unhip preppies of her new school. "Confessions" is an ugly misfire in which teenage girls are painted as narcissistic, materialistic and deceitful. For the first time, Lohan seems to be struggling to make the most of a role that is, in all honesty, hard to make appealing. She was going through a period that The New York Times charmingly referred to as the impending end of her "baby-fat innocence."

Luckily, that same year, she scored her biggest hit yet with the far superior "Mean Girls," a PG-13 comedy written by "SNL" writer/anchor Tina Fey. Lohan stars as Cady Heron, a girl who's thrust into the blackboard jungle of public high school after a lifetime of home-schooling in the African bush. The pretty, personable Cady, ignorant of the entrenched high school caste system, simultaneously befriends a group of outsiders and the Plastics, the crispy popular girls, who welcome her partly because she's a source of condescending bemusement. The film, refreshingly gray-shaded (at least until the climactic moralizing), is anchored by Lohan's utterly believable portrayal of a complex character who wants to dislike the Plastics but is undeniably attracted to their lifestyle. Lohan makes Winona Ryder's similarly conflicted character in "Heathers" look like a cardboard cutout.

The following year saw LiLo in yet another Disney update: "Herbie: Fully Loaded," a continuation of the 36-year-old "Love Bug" series about an anthropomorphic VW Beetle. The movie's pretty stinky, a predictable coming-of-age tale with a NASCAR flavor, and Lohan seems to be coasting through the thing. But "Herbie" served to transition Lohan from teen roles to older characters.

Which brings us to "Just My Luck" (2006), the movie that was supposed to herald a new era for Lohan, that of grownup leading lady. She plays Ashley Albright, a Manhattan PR girl whose preternatural good luck is swapped with the amazingly bad luck of a rock-band manager she smooches at a party. But this cookie-cutter rom-com (so lazy it even contains a cop-eating-donuts gag) was savaged by the critics and tanked at the box office, while Lohan's slightly self-deprecating performance stood out only because everyone else in the film was as interesting as toast.

Luckily for Lindsay, "A Prairie Home Companion" followed a month later to remove the sour taste of "Luck." As Lola (another one!), the melancholic poet daughter of an aging Christian singer, she strikes just the right balance of petulance and earnestness. It's easy to speculate that Lohan was inspired by being part of an ensemble cast including such respected actors as Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, John C. Reilly and Kevin Kline, all under the direction of the legendary Robert Altman (in his final film).

So how come in her next film, the ensemble period drama "Bobby," Lohan seems so awkward? Granted, there's not much good to say about Emilio Estevez's pretentious look at the day Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and more experienced actors such as Sharon Stone and Demi Moore floundered as well, indicating a weak presence behind the camera. But it could also be that Lohan is such a contemporary icon that it's difficult to accept her in the context of the 1960s (much like it was tough to buy Jack Black as a 1930s director in "King Kong").

But it's also undeniable that her much-publicized party-girl image remains (at least for now) attached to her, whether it's part of her character or not. The fact that Lohan plays a rebellious teen in "Georgia Rule" may well work to her advantage. After all, Keanu Reeves was better at playing dumb stoners in "River's Edge" and the "Bill & Ted" films than nuclear physicists or attorneys.

While she undeniably possesses talent — as well as that so-called "it factor" — Lohan has a tendency to rise only as high as the material (unlike, say, Zooey Deschanel, who shines even in awful films). But Lohan is still developing as an actor. It's amazing to think that it's been less than a decade since her first film. She's done a lot of livin' in nine years. And as Lohan hits the ripe old age of 21 this year, we'll all be watching to see what comes next, hoping that she can fulfill her promise and become as notable onscreen as she has off.

Check out everything we've got on "Georgia Rule."

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