He Said, He Said

08.02.13

Is ‘The Canyons’ Really a Disaster? Our Critics Debate

The controversial erotic drama, starring Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen, is in theaters. Is it as bad as some critics say? Marlow Stern and Kevin Fallon weigh in.

The Lindsay Lohan movie is here. You might not know what’s it called, or who wrote it, or what it’s about—but you know that Lindsay Lohan filmed a new movie. And now it’s here.

The Canyons has become a news story in and of itself. The film, written by Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho, Less Than Zero) and directed by Paul Schrader (American Gigolo, Raging Bull), gained notoriety when it became one of the first movies to successfully use the crowd-funding site Kickstarter to finance its production. Then Lohan was cast—at the height of media interest in her downward spiral. More eyebrows were raised when the Porn Star Next Door, James Deen, was cast in his first Hollywood role as the male lead. Then, five months ahead of its eventual release, The New York Times released a lengthy exposé on the tumultuous guerrilla film shoot, replete with stories of Lohan being a disaster to work with on the set.

The Canyons is a modern-day film noir about Christian (Deen), a trust-fund brat turned movie producer; his money-chasing girlfriend, Tara (Lohan); Christian’s naive assistant, Gina (Amanda Brooks); and her boyfriend, Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk). The movie is already polarizing, to say the least: Variety gave it a rave, while The New York Post gave it zero stars.

So what do The Daily Beast’s critics have to say?

Kevin: Since Lindsay and James so bravely bared all in this movie, it’s only fair that I do the same here. I could not fucking wait for this film. If I wasn’t a schmuck who needed to go to Coinstar to pay for his groceries back when the Kickstarter fund was announced, I would have donated handsomely to make sure the film had all the capital it needed to come to fruition. And then La Lohan and James Deen were cast? Forget about it. I’ve been counting down the days to its release, and—I have to say—It was everything I wanted it to be. That’s to say that I never wanted it to be Citizen Kane or Lawrence of Arabia. Hell, I didn’t even want it to be Taxi Driver or American Psycho. I wanted it to be a campy, unapologetically dirty soap opera, like a great episode of Gossip Girl with full frontal nudity and R-rated sex scenes. I wanted Lindsay Lohan to be great in it. I wanted it to be the kind of movie you love but you’re a little ashamed that you love. And it was all that and more.

Marlow: After reading The New York Times exposé, viewing the trailer, and interviewing James Deen about the chaos on set, I’ve got to admit that my expectations were pretty low for The Canyons. And then, after viewing the unintentionally hilarious mess that was Liz & Dick, my expectations were lowered even further. For me, the film doesn’t work. It reminded me of a Lifetime movie crossed with the infamous Don’s Plum—that aborted Leonardo DiCaprio–Tobey Maguire vanity project consisting of privileged Angelenos spewing inane dialogue in fancy interiors. The direction is sloppy, the framing is off in several scenes, and at one point I noticed a movie cable in the background of a shot. But sloppy filmmaking aside, one big problem I have is with Deen’s character, and performance. In the opening dinner scene, set at the Chateau Marmont, it’s painful to witness Deen deliver every line with a smirk, arched eyebrow, and the like. It’s incredibly affected and inorganic. I don’t think porn’s “boy next door” is necessarily at home playing a snide trust-fund baby. His acting chops improve later on, but I just never found his Jekyll & Hyde routine, yo-yoing from jealous boyfriend to domineering psychopath, believable.

Kevin: Was Deen green? Yes. But I was actually impressed by his potential. In the quieter dialogue scenes with Lohan, especially, I found his delivery to be refreshingly natural, in that his lack of training seemed to work for him. His performance in those scenes actually reminded me a lot of Channing Tatum in Magic Mike. He didn’t talk like actors talk when they’re performing a script. He sounded like a real guy sounds, which actually doesn’t happen a lot in movies. A lot of that, I’m sure, had to do with Lohan, who I have to say again was fantastic. There was a rawness to her performance, probably due to the fact that she could relate to Tara’s paranoia and desperation. In one of her early scenes, she tells Christian, “There are some parts of my life I just like to keep private.” To which he responds, “Nobody has a private life anymore, Tara.” It’s a gutting exchange. When people talk about Lohan’s downward spiral, the go-to line has always been, “It’s such a shame, because she was such a talented actress.” I never really bought that—I mean, she was fine in Parent Trap and a decent straight woman in Mean Girls, but it was the crazy supporting characters and Fey’s script that did most of the work in that film. This is the first time I’ve been sold on Lohan as an actress and not just a celebrity.

Marlow: I’m with you on Deen and the quieter scenes. They do seem naturalistic. But he struggles mightily during the bigger moments, which I’m sure is due to his greenhorn status. He’ll get better with practice. As far as Lohan goes, she really is fantastic in the film. The scene between her and sometime squeeze/former lover Ryan at the outdoor lounge is riveting. With great resolve, she explains why it won’t ever work between them (he’ll always be a struggling busboy), and that she’s a fragile thing that needs someone to watch over her. Weeping, she says, “I needed someone to take care of me.” Here is Lohan at her most vulnerable, and it’s some of the finest acting of her career. In fact, she blows all the other actors off the screen in every scene she’s in. And the atmospheric soundtrack, courtesy of Broken Social Scenester Brendan Canning, does a nice job aping Cliff Martinez’s chilly, synth-heavy work on Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Drive. But Lohan aside, one of the big problems I have with the film is that it just isn’t sexy—but it really thinks it is. And yes, both actors appear nude, but you’re never titillated. There’s this sense of cool detachment that looms large over the proceedings, never allowing the audience to become emotionally connected. Even the four-way sex scene, while impressively staged and lit, isn’t sexy.

Kevin: I kind of liked that not all the sex scenes were titillating—I say not all because I disagree with you on the orgy sequence, which I found to be epically hot. But I think the fact that those earlier sex scenes weren’t erotic, and were even uncomfortable and awkward to watch, only helped the film. When Christian talks about his and Tara’s cavalier attitude toward sex (particularly swinging and group sex) at that first dinner, Gina and Ryan are shocked and turned off by it … and so is the audience. So the first time you see them inviting a stranger over to join them in bed, the frankness with which it all goes down—especially the man stripping off his clothes—is unsettling. It’s really hard to focus an entire film on characters as unabashedly vapid and self-serious as the ones in The Canyons and still make their arcs engaging. Schrader and Ellis pull it off by making their vapidness unsettling. The movie takes things that should be glamorous and sensuous—upper-class Los Angeles, the movie industry, illicit affairs—and portrays them as gritty and dirty, and that includes sex. Making those sex scenes so jarring and realistically awkward—so awkward, in fact, you feel a bit of voyeuristic guilt and shame for watching—is part of why that whole idea of making the pretty look ugly succeeds.

Marlow: Well, the first sex scene is supposed to be uncomfortable—and is effectively so. But there at least needs to be some heat between Lohan and Deen’s characters for this story to work. At no point during the film do you understand why Lohan’s character is even with this obvious sociopath to begin with. She seems to have good friends, a doting ex who she’s still in love with, and industry connections, so why is she subjecting herself to being some rich boy’s pet? And, Lohan’s stellar performance notwithstanding, with its thinly drawn characters, schizo performances, awkward camerawork, dull look, and meager plot, I’m not sure what differentiates a film like The Canyons from a Skinemax adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey. If only Lohan’s performance was in the service of a better film … but for now, her comeback will have to wait.