News Column

Review: 'The Canyons' a dreary look at Hollywood

August 1, 2013

YellowBrix

LOS ANGELES -- 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.

"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 blase, 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.

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.

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.

"The Canyons," an IFC Films release, is not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 99 minutes.

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