The Canyons (2013)
Before Veronica Mars success on the high-profile crowd-sourced fundraising site Kickstarter, there was The Canyons. Written by novelist Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho, Less Than Zero) and directed by Oscar-nominee Paul Schrader (Affliction, Taxi Driver), it promised to be a more legit opportunity for fans to fund a real movie, something they could actually see on the big screen. The production successfully raised a budget of $150,000 with rewards like script coverage by Schrader, working out at the gym with Ellis and his physical trainer, and Robert DeNiro’s moneyclip from Taxi Driver. The little production that could got even more press when tabloid darling Lindsay Lohan was cast as the female lead. The New York Times released a lengthy blow-by-blow in January of the tumultuous film shoot, mostly centered around Lohan and her antics. It was a fascinating read. The Canyons is a better behind-the-scenes news article than a competent sexy thriller. The best actor in the film is a prominent male porn star. Make of that what you will.
In the City of Angels, Christian (James Deen) is spinning a web of deceit. He regularly invites other men over to have sex with his girlfriend, Tara (Lohan). His assistant, Gina (Amanda Brooks), has a boyfriend, Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), who wants to be an actor. She convinces Christian to offer him a small part. It just so happens that Ryan and Tara used to date back when they were struggling actors. They’ve also started a new affair. Christian suspects something is amiss and schemes to punish and destroy Ryan and his dreams of Hollywood fame. Meanwhile Ryan is trying to scheme himself to get Tara to finally leave the rich and luxurious clutches of Christian.
Woe to thee expecting a plot or characters worth watching. Despite the presence of artistic heavyweights like Ellis and Schrader, The Canyons is a movie that does a disservice to the word bland. This movie is powerfully bland. There’s just nothing to attach to other than the fascination of Lohan. The characters are posh, privileged, unlikable, and morally slipshod, which is the Ellis specialty. Except in the past he’s given them personalities to go along with their nihilistic narcissism. Christian is a pale likeness of Patrick Bateman and has no charisma or intriguing sense of darkness to him, something to keep you watching. Mostly he’s just a jerk. But he’s not even an interesting jerk. The plot is a merry-go-round of infidelity, as numerous characters have secret paramours, which makes their cumulative jealousy all the more absurd. What does Christian have to get so upset about? He invites men and women over to have sex with Tara. They even engage in a foursome. I suppose there is the limp argument that he’s not in control, but how tedious is that? Ultimately, you’re watching Bland Character A complain to Bland Character B about how unhappy Bland Character C makes them. This scenario repeats many times. I wish there was more gratuitous nudity to hold my attention. It’s a soap opera that you want to turn off. The entire screenplay feels like weak, reheated Ellis depravity without anything memorable.
Here’s an example of how lazy the screenwriting gets: after Christian is done having sex with Cynthia (Tenille Houston), a yoga teacher (that’s one way of doing it), they relax. In this scene, Cynthia asks questions that have no real purpose other than to advance exposition, and it’s sorely obvious. It’s all, “What did she mean by that?” and, “Why would you go to this place?” Every screenplay has exposition but the trick is to make it as invisible as possible. Pacific Rim did a particularly great job at masking its exposition so that it arrived in a way that didn’t feel like the plot was stalling. The fact that Ellis doesn’t even put forth any effort to disguise what is naked and clunky exposition just speaks to an overall sense of lethargy or indifference on his part with the script. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ellis knocked this out over one long, monotonous weekend.
The other mortal misstep is that Schrader makes the movie so serious that you’ll find yourself laughing at spots. This is not great material to begin with, nor compelling characters, but it could have, emphasis on “could,” worked had the production embraced its silly sense of luridness. There’s a reason we’re more forgiving of late-night thrillers with copious amounts of vice. They accept their identity. I think Schrader may have read Ellis’ lackluster script and envisioned another Looking for Mr. Goodbar (I’m not confusing it with Schrader’s own American Gigolo). This is not a morality tale but Schrader seems to think otherwise. I don’t sense any cohesive commentary about young people and their sexual mores or the predominance of technology and its negative impact on human connection. Christian and Tara text at the dinner table. He films “movies” on his phone of their sexual trysts with strangers culled from Craigstlist. There’s a big difference just including these items and actually having something to say. Schrader opens and closes the film with montages of rundown movie theaters, many shuttered up and long out of business. What am I supposed to decipher from this exactly? Tara asks Gina, who works in the movies, when was the last time she went and saw a movie, a film that honestly made her feel something. Gina is stumped, but that’s all you get for that thematic reference. Is Schrader taking out his ire on the state of Hollywood filmmaking and the studio system? Regardless, you won’t feel anything form The Canyons either.
So what truly is the draw here? Why would someone want to watch this movie? The only factor I can surmise, beyond morbid curiosity, is the presence of Lohan. I doubt this movie would seem as compelling absent the troubled actress. Would people be clamoring to see this movie if it starred, say, Hilary Duff instead? She’s been out of the limelight seemingly as long as Lohan but she’s also had a stable personal life. I won’t pretend I’m above this. I watched The Canyons out of sheer curiosity, and that inquisitiveness hinged upon Lohan. She hasn’t starred in a theatrically released movie since 2007’s I Know Who Killed Me (my #2 worst film of that year), and she’s fresh off the infamous Lifetime movie of Elizabeth Taylor that many websites turned into a derisive drinking game. There’s an undeniable rubbernecking quality here not to mention the prurient promise of Lohan taking off her clothes. To pacify the curious, Lohan has two scenes where she goes topless, one during the aforementioned foursome. If you’re planning a hot night home alone with you and your VOD, good luck trying to make sense of that foursome. It’s shot with all these blinky lasers bouncing off people’s writhing bodies, losing just about whatever small sensuality the scene may have gained. I’d expect the scenes to land on the Internet in a matter of days, if not hours, so that salient selling point will be moot. Lohan’s acting on the other hand is less deserving of attention. There are a few moments where it feels like character and actress have merged, and her crying jags about lost opportunities, dreams gone awry, feel inescapably real for her. I think she would have been better served with a less solemn tone and more sudsy and sundry thrills.
Deen has the best feel for Ellis’ pulpy material, and while he doesn’t really click as a menacing figure even as he’s murdering people (he’s too much a Jewish boy next door type), he does come across as a megalomaniacal creep. Perhaps my expectations were just too low for a porn actor, so my apologies for my prejudices. Given the right material, Deen may surprise (not by his full-frontal nude scene). I do think that Katie Morgan (Zack and Miri Make a Porno) has the ability to transcend porn. She’s just so effortlessly charming, something that most of the actors in The Canyons have trouble with. Funk (House at the End of the Street) cannot get a good grip on his character’s emotions and thus he just seems pissy all the time. I’ll spare the other actors mentioning but I feel the need to inform that Oscar-nominated director Gus Van Sant plays Christian’s trust fund-mandated therapist. Guess what doesn’t work well?
Those seeking an outrageous exploitation film filled with soapy sex and intrigue, as well as pretty people behaving very badly, will be surely disappointed with The Canyons. I guess it all depends on your expectation level for a film that bypassed the traditional financial system and crowd-sourced on the basis of Schrader and Ellis’ notoriety. I’m glad that both artists found a conduit for collaboration and found a way to make it happen on the (relative) cheap. I just don’t know why it had to be this crummy story. Thematically, Schrader and Ellis seem to be completely at odds, which results in a super serious movie about terrible, and terribly boring, characters doing little else but indulging in vices and whining (also a vice?). Without the presence of Lohan to add a curiosity factor, there is honestly no good reason to spend good money on this dithering project. The moderate success of The Canyons is somewhat comforting, but really, this wasn’t a movie that deserved people’s donations, and it certainly doesn’t deserve your time.
Nate’s Grade: D+