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Dustin Putman

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The Canyons  (2013)
2 Stars
Directed by Paul Schrader.
Cast: Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, Nolan Funk, Amanda Brooks, Tenille Houston, Lauren Schachter, Jim Boeven, Gus Van Sant.
2013 – 98 minutes
Not Rated: (equivalent of NC-17 for strong sexual content and graphic nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 30, 2013.
"Tell me something," Tara (Lindsay Lohan) says to her friend Gina (Amanda Brooks) over lunch at the Century City shopping mall, "Do you really like movies? When was the last time you went to see a movie in a theater? A movie you thought really meant something to you?" These are perfectly legitimate questions, posed as a challenge to not only Gina, but to the audience at large. The problem is, if a director like Paul Schrader (1997's "Affliction") and a screenwriter like Bret Easton Ellis (2009's "The Informers") dare ask them in the context of their own film, then they better be providing a piece of work that breaks through complacent boundaries while having the wherewithal to truly mean something to viewers. "The Canyons," which isn't nearly as seedy or decadent or provocative as it wants to be, is not going to be toppling any cinematic status quo anytime soon. Filled with shallow, narcissistic movers and shakers existing on the Hollywood fringe, the film depicts the superficial and passive-aggressive without finding any deeper comment or point beneath the surface.

Rich, smarmy pretty-boy Christian (James Deen) has agreed to partially bankroll an upcoming low-budget horror film and has cast aspiring actor Ryan (Nolan Funk) in one of the lead roles. Threatening to derail everything, Ryan secretly shares a history with Christian's girlfriend, Tara, and still hasn't been able to get over her. Even as Tara insists she's with Christian and not prepared to go back to the struggling, hardscrabble life they once shared, the two of them indulge in an affair. Though Ryan's supportive girlfriend, Gina, is kept in the dark, Christian—not exactly an angel himself, sleeping with yoga instructor Cynthia (Tenille Houston) on the side—suspects Tara is keeping something from him. When he finds out the truth, he sets into motion a malicious plot to threaten Ryan's career and destroy his life.

"The Canyons" opens with a collection of snapshots of abandoned, long-closed cinemas, then proceeds to provide an example of the kind of vapid, sudsy feature film currently clearing out multiplex auditoriums. Delectably lensed by cinematographer John DeFazio with a moody synth score from composer Brendan Canning, the picture has reasonably high production values despite its slim $250,000 budget, but Bret Easton Ellis' disappointingly insipid script reminds of a tawdrier "Melrose Place" mixed with an inferior clone trying—and failing—to emulate the underlying pathos of Ellis' past work. A sociopathic egotist who thinks nothing of bringing in strangers for threesomes but isn't about to let anyone sleep—nay, talk—to Tara behind his back, Christian is a spiteful puppet master who swaps his phone with his girl's to spy on her, wipes out Ryan's bank account, and convinces a gay colleague, effects guy Jon (Jim Boeven), to lure Ryan to his make-or-break casting couch. Then he goes a few steps even further.

Making his acting debut proper, porn star James Deen acquits himself just all right as Christian, his demeanor frequently stilted but methodical while essaying a character who has virtually no redeeming qualities. As Ryan, a deceptively more honest-hearted guy until it is discovered that he liberally cheats on girlfriend Gina and will do whatever he must to get ahead in the movie biz, Nolan Funk (2012's "House at the End of the Street") is strung along by the contrived necessities of the tangled, soapy narrative. Outshining both of them—and, really, the entire film—is Lindsay Lohan (2013's "Scary Movie 5"). Were "The Canyons" stronger as a whole, her raw, passionate, haunted performance would be impressive enough to potentially redeem the last five years in which the troubled starlet has squandered her talent and career. As Tara, a young woman floundering between the security she's grown accustomed to and the sacrifices she may have to make in order to find true happiness, Lohan is riveting to watch in a way that only punctuates how phony the rest of the film is.

"We act differently depending on what people we're around," Christian tells his shrink, Dr. Campbell (Gus Van Sant). Maybe so, but not Christian himself. He's a jackass no matter who he shares company with. As the characters in "The Canyons" are put through the paces, not a single relationship on view a healthy one and some downright hazardous, director Paul Schrader aims for sexual frankness and thematic ambition, yet never brings insight to the trivial ins and outs of the story and the petty human behavior on display. Only Lohan is able to inject urgency and realism into the convoluted—a sign of a formidably special sort of actor who, if she can finally get her real-life act together, still might have a future in the biz. Simply put, "The Canyons" doesn't deserve her.
© 2013 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman