The Canyons opens (and ends, over the closing credits) with photographs of abandoned, dilapidated movie theaters, which would be the world's most obvious metaphor if the film were actually competent enough to be about what it wants to be about. Director Paul Schrader (who should know better) and writer Bret Easton Ellis (who probably wouldn't) are trying to do some sort of "Hollywood is a vapid, soulless wasteland" satire, and I can't tell if it's more embarrassing that they think this is something new to say, or that they're so bungling and ham-fisted about saying it. It feels like a student film made by someone who wants to break into the movie business but can't and is bitter about it, if this person only barely spoke English and wasn't precisely sure on which side of the camera is the one you're supposed to look through.
The Canyons appears to be the only movie of the last 25 years to be scandalized that movie producers are sketchy liars, that young actors sometimes have to sleep with people to get better roles, and that movies are produced more to make money than to create art. (Also, apparently, in Schrader's and Ellis' Hollywood, blowing a guy to get a part is roughly as common as brunch. You don't even seem to need to ask.) The movie follows a trust fund kid producer (played by porn star James Deen) whose girlfriend (Lindsay Lohan) is having an affair with a thunkheaded struggling actor (Nolan Funk), and all the oddly rote things that ensue once everybody finds out. There's lots of talk of kinky sex and betrayal and insanity, but this is really just a long, dull love triangle. Well, maybe not a "love" triangle; maybe more of a "person you sort of notice when you occasionally look up from your phone" triangle.
The movie, because Ellis considers himself some sort of expert in tech consumer culture, also examines our obsessions with our smartphones and how they can disconnect us from real life. It's not a terrible notion to explore, but Ellis is strangely Sorkin-esque in this regard, showing a lack of understanding of tech culture that betrays a sneering lack of interest. At one point, Lohan's character receives an anonymous text message, but so the audience can see the exchange, something called "TexTV" pops up on her widescreen. (This leads to an unfortunate sequence of Lohan tapping her phone while inching closer to her TV, in horror.) Another highlight is when Deen snoops on Lohan by simply switching her phone with an identical one — because of course she wouldn't notice that's not her phone the minute she turned it on — and when he hires his tech person to "hack into her Facebook." Ellis talks about technology the way your great-grandmother does.
Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and directed American Gigolo and Affliction (and the great, underappreciated Blue Collar), should be above all this junk. He seems to have gotten too excited about having a high-profile — sorry, "high-profile" — project to put much thought into it past "I need a hit!" (Stephen Rodrick's outstanding New York Times Magazine story about the filming of The Canyons sort of immortalized this desperation.) The movie ends up not making any sense, lurching from limp satire to sex romp to slasher flick like the stumblings of a man on a mild ether binge. Everyone just seems sort of bored.
The appeal, such as it is, of The Canyons is meant to be in its casting, with its tabloid nightmare in the lead role and its real-life porn star playing opposite her. I'll give Deen credit for trying; he makes his face go slack and tries to get all American Psycho on an underwritten, ill-conceived role. He mostly just sneers a lot, and briefly shows his penis. Funk, as the dim-witted third wheel of this idiot tricycle, is The Room-level bad; he looks like a muscled-up Justin Bieber with less range.
But Lohan is who most people will curious about, and it's worth remembering that before TMZ ate her up, Lohan was considered a skilled, soulful actress with a sky's-the-limit future. (Back when there was still hope for her, former co-star William H. Macy, while scolding her for being late to shoots, praised her as a "huge talent.") She's not great in The Canyons, but you can see the actress she could have been. She doesn't sleepwalk; she tries to give a real, grownup performance, and there are moments when you can see the hurt there, you can see how some actual pain. Her deconstructed face cuts a certain gothic, haunted figure: She's lost, but deep down in there, an actual actress is screaming to come out. She's not looking so great, though — Schrader's closeups do her no favors — which could work for the film if Ellis' script didn't keep making all the other characters insist she's the most beautiful woman any of them have ever seen.
As you probably suspected, there's no reason to see The Canyons; even the big sex scene feels conventional and tame. (Lohan makes Deen and a man kiss each other. Holy shit yo.) I think what I found most sad about it is how little an impact it's going to make for Ellis, Lohan and Schrader, once-skilled artists who are now long gone, industry jokes. They probably treated Deen, in his first "straight" movie, like they were helping him out, like they knew something he didn't. But now they have yet another dumb movie on their hands. Deen will keep having a career after this; as he put it, "it’s not a real job in the sense that my day at work is still a pretty good day." I'm not sure, after this, anyone else involved with The Canyons will be able to say the same thing.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.