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Far from the renegade, boundary-pushing, sexually explicit sensation that its makers have been suggesting, The Canyons is a lame, one-dimensional and ultimately dreary look at peripheral Hollywood types not worth anyone’s time either onscreen or in real life. Skanky side of L.A. expert Bret Easton Ellis employs nothing but melodramatic cliches in relating the manipulative and duplicitous doings of characters altogether interchangeable in their tediousness and lack of distinct personalities, while Paul Schrader had far more to work with in his last foray into scum-bucket Hollywood behavior in the excellent Auto Focus.
And any expectations of explicit sex fostered by the presence of porn star James Deen and press reports of top-billed Lindsay Lohan getting down for real here are not even approached, much less fulfilled, as there’s nothing beyond standard R-rated talk and nudity on hand. It’s this sort of non-entertaining, pseudo-arty film that partially is responsible for the shuttered and abandoned movie theaters that symbolically adorn the opening and closing credits. After its Sunday world premiere at a special Lincoln Center screening, the IFC release will open in early August domestically and bow internationally at the Venice Film Festival.
“Nobody has a private life anymore,” Deen’s rich pretty boy Christian aptly points out early on to his live-in actress girlfriend Tara (Lohan). But then he spends the rest of the film’s running time essentially proving the contrary, as he obsessively and twistedly endeavors to pry out the truth about Tara’s past and present relationship with aspiring actor Ryan (Nolan Funk), another gym-toned clone who’s dating Christian’s assistant Gina (Amanda Brooks) and is supposed to play the lead in a low-budget film Christian is backing.
Given how open everyone here is about sex and their various relationships, not to mention Christian’s swinger ways, the neurotic hang-ups he has about the imagined threat posed by Ryan hold no dramatic water. Otherwise blasé, conceited and narcissistic, this trust fund baby with a stunning hillside Malibu pad is a pale brother to Ellis’s totemic character of the 1990s, Patrick Bateman, in American Psycho, and both feel like cousins of Patricia Highsmith‘s Tom Ripley.
In this case, make that a boring cousin. The blandly good-looking, immaculately groomed Christian mostly assumes a posture of nonchalant petulance, affecting not to care about anything beneath the surface until it comes time to manipulate those in his small circle. In fact, he’s right to suspect something; having been an item four years previously, Ryan and Tara have recently resumed their affair, but Tara wants to back out. Perhaps she’d reconsider if she knew Christian was still getting it off with voluptuous yoga teacher Cynthia (Tenille Houston), but no one seems to care about that much. The audience certainly won’t.
The vapidity of the characters isn’t surprising coming from Ellis, but you’d think that Schrader, a smart if erratic presence on the American film scene for 40 years now and always an acute observer of Hollywood mores, would at this point in his career want to devote his attention to more interesting members of the filmmaking community than these nonentities and to offer a more complex and nuanced take on the town’s habitues. Sure, there are dull and vapid pretty young things all over the place. But these bozos aren’t lively enough to even get cast on a reality TV show, much less be the focus of written drama where some psychological and emotional dimensions are normally expected.
As the little story trudges forward, scenes develop an annoying habit of cutting away right before they climax, almost comically preventing you from seeing what you might want to see: In the first instance, Christian forces a gay fellow producer to tell Ryan he’ll lose the part in the film unless he has sex with him, but after the big lead-up we don’t see what happens; Christian brings another couple to the house for a four-way involving him and Tara, but the brief interlude is so darkly lit that any below-the-waist action is invisible, and then it abruptly ends; and the ill-intended Christian heads to Cynthia’s home with nasty results that are only indicated later.
The undimensional and unambitious character conceptions offer very little for the actors to work with; they have no humor, no worthwhile insights, no detectable, relatable humanity. Nor are there significant dramatic opportunities to test either Lohan, who comes off OK but unexceptionally, certainly compared to some of her earlier roles, or the less familiar names.
You have to wonder about the casting of Deen, a popular and prolific porn actor who makes his first mainstream screen appearance here. There is some obvious publicity value in the move, but his performance is entirely one note in a part that makes little sense from the outset. Christian’s sour attitude and bad behavior would take a charismatic and insinuating actor to make him palatable, so Deen’s lack of real acting experience represents an insurmountable handicap. Physically, he does let it all hang out in one brief shot as he makes his way to the orgy bedroom, but the question remains: If you’re not intending to make use of a porn actor’s attributes, why cast him if there are other actors who could bring more to the scenes?
Houston brings some welcome feistiness to a woman who can’t catch a break, while Funk and Brooks are neither here nor there. Gus Van Sant turns up briefly as Christian’s shrink.
Shot in a straightforward way that falls leagues short of the sleek elegance of Schrader’s first tango with love and money in Southern California, American Gigolo, 33 years ago, the film looks OK considering its micro-budget, although the electronic score sounds tinny.
Opens: August 2 (IFC Films)
Production: Post Empire Films, Sodium Fox, Prettybird Pictures, FilmworksFX
Cast: Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, Nolan Funk, Amanda Brooks, Tenille Houston, Gus Van Sant
Director: Paul Schrader
Screenwriter: Bret Easton Ellis
Producer: Braxton Pope
Director of photography: John DeFazio
Production designer: Stephanie J. Gordon Costume designer: Keely Crum Editor: Tim Silano Music: Brendan Canning 99 minutes
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