With a lead actress now more famous for her rehab stints than her film roles, a lead actor (James Deen) who made his bones in pornography, and a stylish opening montage of decaying movie houses, The Canyons seems ready to make a damning meta-statement about the moral rot in Hollywood.
But the film, from writer Bret Easton Ellis and director Paul Schrader, succeeds only in becoming the object of its own condemnation. It's just another limp, soft-core porn thriller lacking the courage of its convictions.
This Hollywood isn't the one any of us knows. This is a smaller, sadder place, ruled by trust-fund brat Christian (Deen), whose idea of a party is calling strangers to his Malibu mansion so he can film them getting some skin time with his idle girlfriend, Tara (Lohan).
We meet them both at dinner with Gina (Amanda Brooks) and her boyfriend Ryan (Nolan Funk). This is where things get complicated, so stay with me. (Or run now. Entirely up to you.)
Gina is Christian's former assistant, and she's making her first film, with Ryan as the star. Ryan is also, secretly, Tara's ex-boyfriend and current lover, unbeknownst to Gina and Christian, who's using his daddy's money to fund the movie. The Canyons is all about whether Christian will discover that his bought-and-paid-for live-in love is sneaking around behind his back with his movie's star.
But the real mystery is why any of these people stay in each other's lives, and it's one that's never solved.
There are crosses and double-crosses aplenty, with Christian controlling everyone in his realm like a mafia don, rather than the vicious little punk he is. Deen is actually rather compelling in the role, stretching the character so it's not quite so thin. He nearly meets Lohan at her level, as she delivers a performance that's naked in every sense of the word, so pregnant with desperation and need that you have to wonder how much she's truly acting.
That's the worst part of the movie – yes, worse than the illogical script, worse than Schrader's uninspired direction, and worse even than the wooden acting by the supporting cast. The visceral pain of The Canyons is feeling how much Lohan obviously wants to be on film, but not like this.
Her character is a rich kid's toy, an accessory who's fussed over but easily replaceable, and the film doesn't give her much room to grow beyond that. It's impossible not to make the connection that Lohan herself is similarly stuck, and similarly afraid of being replaced by an endless flow of new talent that streams into the film industry every day.
And you know what? It hurts to watch someone so young and fragile work through a personal drama in such a public, shabby way. Which brings me to The Canyons' fatal flaw – that there isn't a single frame of footage that's more interesting than the real-life drama surrounding it.
The Canyons is available on video on demand and in limited New York theaters Friday, with a wider release Aug. 9.
I've rarely felt the need to add to a published review to clarify a point. But we're talking not simply about someone's career here, but their personal struggle, so it seemed necessary.
Lindsay Lohan may not be the actress who grew before us, full of promise and spirit. She's a different person now, and a different performer. But she is still a talented one. Her performance in The Canyons is painful because the movie, as unfortunate as it is, plays on some of her personal struggles and asks her to deal with some of those issues onscreen. That would be difficult for anyone, but Lindsay does it about as well as one could hope.
I honestly don't know if being the best thing in a bad – and dare I say notorious – movie is the right career move for her. All I can say is that watching someone who's at a vulnerable point in their life be so emotionally exposed onscreen in such bad material is unpleasant. I wish better for her.