Today I wanted to watch something truly awful, and in The Canyons I mostly got my wish. It is awful, but not irredeemably so. Directed by Paul Schrader, who wrote the legendary films Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and directed American Gigolo and a handful of other not awful films, and written by Brett Easton Ellis – Less Than Zero, American Psycho, The Rules of Attraction – its pedigree prevents it from being truly awful. Just awful, unmodified. Schrader does some interesting things with a camera, and he manages to keep the ship afloat more or less admirably. Ellis, too, can be commended, in his case for a slightly more than adequate screenplay that is at times clever (though at other times inelegant and ultimately inconsequential). The Canyons also stars Lindsay Lohan – which may be the only thing you already know about it – whose performance can admittedly be counted among the films strengths.
But that’s where commendable ends and awful begins.
Starring beside Ms. Lohan is one James Deen. (No typo.) If you’re unfamiliar with the world of adult film, you’re likely unfamiliar with Mr. Deen. I’m sure the edgy choice casting Deen generated considerable buzz for the film, but in the end his unique skill set wasn’t put to use, so why bother? Sure, there’s a brief shot of arguably gratuitous full frontal male nudity – that is, a brief appearance of Mr. Deen’s member, in the words of the trade – but the sex scenes in the film require none of the expertise Deen is said to have. Actually, they could have benefited from better acting, as could the rest of the film. (Btw, why do I say “arguably gratuitous”? Well, the nudity was certainly organic to what the scene called for. It’s not like it was out of place. But it didn’t advance the plot either.)
It wouldn’t be unfair to say that much of what’s awful in The Canyons can be laid at the feet of James Deen. Whatever charisma he employs in the world of adult film does not translate to cinema. And he may be a perfectly wonderful human being, but in this movie? That stupid duckface! That douchey smirk! Those constantly slow-blinking eyes! And that voice, an irritating mix of male vocal fry (bro-cal fry?) and all out mumblemouth! (E-nun-ci-ate, dammit!) Then there’s the forced nonchalance! This guy is trying so hard you can’t help but feel sorry for him from time to time. It’s painfully clear that, to Deen, acting naturally does not come naturally at all.
To be fair, the character Deen is tasked with playing is not intended to be likable. But this isn’t a question of disliking an unlikable person. This is bad acting, plain and simple. Just look at his effect on the rest of the cast. Deen makes (most of) the other actors look good. Lohan, for one, is genuinely compelling. A performance this good makes you wish she were easier to work with, because she has all the natural ability and onscreen charisma Deen lacks. The other leads are also good (though it’s hard to tell just how good when judged in the context of the leading man).
Aside from the leads, the supporting actors are just about as bad as Deen, a fact that becomes painfully obvious whenever he has to play an entire scene against one of these minor characters. There’s one scene in particular, with Deen and Jim Boeven, that aspires to be Tommy Wiseau in The Room level bad. And then there’s the scene with Gus Van Sant, whose presence in the movie can only be explained by a desire to give it some sort of indie cachet. Deen and Van Sant are both horrible, but at least no one would make the mistake of thinking that Van Sant wants to be an actor. Still, neither of them had much to work with; the graceless exposition-by-interrogation in their scene together is much, much worse than their acting. It’s one of the weakest parts of a not awful screenplay. (And, yes, sending one of your characters to a therapist is NOS for narrative expediency. So is voiceover. Neither one tends to be very expertly utilized.)
And what about the story? Built largely around Brett Easton Ellis’s insatiable fascination with sociopaths, The Canyons concerns itself with Christian (Deen), who enthusiastically relies on social media to orchestrate, as he says, “certain assignations” (rather, azz-ig-nayshuns) – which means that he trawls the internet for young, beautiful men and/or women willing to join him and his girlfriend Tara (Lohan) for sex – but is epically bent out of shape over Tara’s infidelity.
Now, don’t misunderstand. Christian and Tara are not some modern, sexually-enlightened couple who enjoy an open relationship that was mutually agreed upon. And even their not at all plain vanilla but allegedly consensual sex life is clearly an arrangement that serves Christian’s drives far more than Tara’s, all housing and financial arrangements aside. No, Christian is a low-rent Machiavelli who lives and breathes exploitation and manipulation and is gaslighting just about everyone else in the film.
As already mentioned, Brett Easton Ellis knows from sociopaths. But the villain he’s created in Christian is not quite up to his standard. (Again, blame James Deen?) He’s no Patrick Bateman. Even if he does don rubber gloves and a track suit and make use of a sharp object. Because so much of this story has to do with (a certain cynical view of) sexual politics, I’d like to say Christian would be at home in just about anything by Neil LaBute, but that would be unkind to Mr. LaBute. Christian is creepy. He may even be evil. But mostly he’s a douche, a deadly bro. That’s nothing to shake a stick at, for sure, but Deen’s portrayal of Christian never quite enters the pantheon of true cinematic villains. Maybe that’s to Deen’s credit as a human being. Maybe he really is too much of a nice guy (or a douche) to make himself into an indisputably malevolent force.
Do I have any more complaints? Sure. Here they are, in no particular order:
- Babe, babe, babe!!! If I had more time, I would catalog every sentence in this movie just to determine the ratio of sentences that end with the word “babe” or “baby” to the sentences that do not.
- I feel sorry for movies made since the advent of the internet, social media, and SMS that feel the need to work these things into the fabric of their narratives. David Fincher’s House of Cards might be the only one I’ve seen that’s come up with anything close to an elegant solution to texting. The Canyons most certainly has not. In most instances, we just have to stare at the screen of someone’s iPhone (fine), but in one ridiculous scene Tara’s extended text relay is broadcast on “TexTV,” which I hope for the world’s sake doesn’t actually exist. (Google didn’t help me confirm or deny.) TexTV is essentially what it sounds like – her iPhone screen is ported to the widescreen TV so that we can read along and see her reaction without having to repeatedly cut back to the palm of her hand. There’s got to be a better way!
- The movie ends well enough, emotionally/narratively speaking, with Christian and Tara but then insists on tacking on another scene that, through more ungainly dialogue, excruciatingly ties up loose ends that could have been left untied. It is, admittedly, the other half of a set of bookends, but it is also clumsy and uncalled for. Then it has the gall to be a set up for a totally obvious but supposed to be shocking twist that turns out to be a more genuine twist that still falls short of a genuine climax.
- Stylistically, this thing has a bit of an identity complex. The cinematography is decent if not generally more than satisfactory. But it’s occasionally marred by that shaky handheld business, which is mostly distracting for the fact that it’s out of place in the rest of the movie. I don’t doubt that this was a digital affair, but the approach to most scenes and most shots suggests that it really wants to be film. For that reason, the shaky stuff is especially distracting.
- Btw, (not a complaint) for a film that was clearly billed as a sleazy sexfest (starring James Deen!), The Canyons has surprisingly little sex, none of it sexy.
- This is also not a complaint. Just an observation. The Canyons could have been improved considerably by replacing Mr. Deen with someone up to the task, someone who would have generated even more buzz: Charlie Sheen. I have a feeling even Brett Easton Ellis might agree with me.
In the end, the nicest thing I can say about The Canyons is that it made me want to watch Hurlyburly, which is about a similar strata of L.A.’s social ecosphere, and is just as shrill and ugly, but at least has something to say and superb actors to say it. But, in all fairness, The Canyons wasn’t truly awful. I’ve seen worse.