Once upon a time in a high school drama master class, a group of friends and I were given a one-act play to perform for our final exam. The play was Anton Chekov’s The Proposal.
Myself and my other cast mates had no clue what to make of the exaggerated work or of our bumbling characters ; and, our director didn’t know any better. We agreed that the amount of time given to comprehend Chekov’s unique writing was unreasonable, but alas, we soldiered on and did our best.
The night of our performance was a disaster. Our motivations were still cloudy, lines were forgotten or stumbled over, and as a theatrical Hail Mary, the other guy in the company decided to soak myself (and the better half of the front row) with a bucket of water. The script only called for a slight splash. In hindsight, I suppose the drenching was ironic since we were all hanging out to dry.
There’s a lot of that disarray going on in Paul Schrader’s The Canyons. No one in front of the camera or behind it has any idea how to perform a script written by Bret Easton Ellis – not even the screenwriter, Bret Easton Ellis. Except the confusion in The Canyons seems worse since everyone is supposed to be a professional.
The main cast, like in Chekov’s The Proposal, consists of three main players. These hapless, disheveled actors are Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, and Nolan Funk. Like us in our hazy lil’ play, the main cast looks to be confused more than anything. It’s as if they were given the script to analyze with a limited amount of time and glazed over one-on-ones with their “trusty” director.
Lines are read with such cardboard delivery, it’s as if Lohan, Deen, and Funk are trying to figure out the ropes of Ellis’ writing as the film plods along. It’s the type of spacey, slow understanding that exists during monotonous sessions of learning long division.
I’m not comparing Bret Easton Ellis to Anton Chekov by any means – the writer belongs in a league of his own. I really like Ellis’ past work, like The Rules of Attraction and American Psycho. When Ellis is in his element, I think the writer can be darkly funny with his representation and satire of snotty, self-entitled, terrible jerks.
With The Canyons, however, he’s spinning his wheels. He has a group of intentionally awful and vain characters who live in a wasteland of shallow seniority, but there’s nothing behind these characters that make them interesting. It’s as if he thinks the presence of familiar characters he’s written about before will seal the deal and garner an audience’s acceptance. That doesn’t work, Bret.
The writer even has a hard time creating a memorable sly villain. In The Canyons, movie goers are given Christian (played by Deen). Christian scowls and talks menacingly, so people will realize just how important and powerful he is. Ellis has written Christian as someone with an overwhelming abundance of arrogance developing him to become self-parodying instead of self-entitled. And because there’s no material to build upon, Deen is left brooding and wandering as his amateur stab at acting in more serious feature films turns into a performance that will have befuddled audiences snickering.
This is a far cry career move for everyone involved – even Lohan who chalks up another smudge in 2013 with Scary Movie 5 and InAPPropriate Comedy keeping misery company. But ultimately, it’s Schrader, who has a very impressive screenwriting résumé including Scorsese favourites Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and his confused direction that drives this ship into the cinematic Bermuda Triangle.
His direction is consistently absent as he searches for a meaning through all the shallow stereotypes. Since he’s too busy searching, he doesn’t give anyone else in his cast or crew a clue to go off on. Causing people like Lindsay Lohan – who is so, so lost – to have a hard enough time figuring out where they should stare during a scene.
The Canyons momentarily scratches the surface of what this film full of double crosses should’ve been. We see these slight glimmers during a table turning orgy and the film’s violent final act. But, then again, it doesn’t dig any deeper into what Ellis is trying to say during these scenes of betrayal. It’d be like someone reciting, “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” and then considering themselves an expert in Shakespeare.
Like a chaotic and wet night of botched Chekhovian theatre, The Canyons doesn’t fare any better. Why no one raised a red flag at any point during pre, mid, or post-production will forever be a mystery. If only my drama class mate was there on set with a bucket of water to put Mr. Shrader and his cast out of their misery. Maybe then The Canyons would’ve been set on the right path. It’d be water-logged, but hey, being water-logged is better than being hollow.