I have seen more than a few bad films by celebrated filmmakers in my life. But The Canyons may take the clichéd and proverbial cake. It has to be one of the worst movies every made by a respected writer/director, in this case Paul Schrader. I mean, this is a film that isn’t even as good as Torn Curtain, Shadows and Fog or The Bonfire of the Vanities (well, actually, I may have gone a bridge too far there; Bonfire… is pretty bad). I’m not sure what is worse about it: that it’s just so horribly bad in it’s own right, or that it was made by the filmmaker of such movies as Blue Collar, The Comfort of Strangers, Light Sleeper, Affliction, Auto Focus and the underrated The Walker (as well as the author of such classics as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull).
I suppose in Schrader’s defense one could say that at least he didn’t write it. That dubious honor went to the no longer infante terrible Bret Easton Ellis. I don’t know what Los Angeles did to Ellis to piss him off so, but he is one angry dude and he is bent on taking no prisoners. So not surprisingly, The Canyons is a movie about the immorality of the city of angels. But it’s also a film in which everybody seems to live in homes far above their pay grade; where everyone behaves as if they were characters in Dangerous Liaisons (though the film as a whole never quite reaches the level of Melrose Place or Beverly Hills whatever); where the worst thing that can happen to a straight man is to get a blow job from another man; and where everyone blames the city for their deeds, rather than take responsibility for their own actions. You know the routine. To paraphrase Oscar Levant, it’s the real tinsel behind the fake tinsel.
The basic plot is a neo noir revolving around a bored couple who become involved with the production of a slasher film and casting a boytoy in one of the parts. The story itself is perfectly fine. It’s not quite there yet, but it gets the job done and one could see that something could have been made of it that would be more than entertaining enough. It’s main drawback is that it’s clunky at times; the story sets up a couple of situations that suggest some sort of payoff, but none appear: one character is coerced into having sex with a man to keep a part in the film and then the same character seems to be set up for a murder. But neither twist really has a follow through. In fact, because there wasn’t a follow through, after the movie was over, I was no longer sure why the murder took place.
The real villains here, though, are not the characters, but the actors. The leads are played by James Deen and Linsday Lohan as lovers who like to play mind games with each other whenever Deen’s character is not filming his girlfriend having sex with another man of his choosing. To be charitable, neither performer is very good. In fact, they are excretal. It is perhaps the worst acted movie of the year (yeah, you heard me, Pacific Rim; you want to make something of it?).
But Deen is particularly at sea as an actor. There are times when it feels as if he’s delivering his lines as through there is no one else in the room, he has so little connection to his fellow thespians. At the same time, I do have to say (and when I say this, I am being very sincere and not being remotely snarky), as bad as Deen is, there is a suggestion that he might make a fairly good comedian; there was just something about his line readings that suggested he might have some sort of comic timing that could serve him well.
I’m not sure what led Schrader to make some of the choices he did here, especially when it came to the actors. Was this the only way he could raise money for the film, to cast people more for their notoriety than their ability? Or was he trying to say something about the way movies are usually made in Hollywood? Or was he suggesting that directors who are also auteurs don’t need good actors (or a good script) because they are, well, auteurs? At any rate, hopefully this is only a blip on Schrader’s oeuvre and he’ll be back on course with his next outing. After all, even Shakespeare had his Titus Andronicus, but he managed to recover all right.
Prince Avalanche is a shaggy dog story with a couple of shaggy dogs in the leads. It’s one of those odd couple tales, you know the sort, where two disparate beings fight and fight until they learn life lessons from each other and fall in love ala Beatrice and Benedict from Willy Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
This time around, the story is about two men who paint those yellow lines down the middle of roads. One, uptight Alvin, played by Paul Rudd wearing an ironic mustache unironically, is all business and has a misanthropic streak to him (one imagines that this stick in the mud was probably what Henry David Thoreau was really like). His partner in paint is the more slackerly Lance, played by Emile Hirsch with a body as droopy as his character. Lance gets lonely if he’s alone more than five seconds and just can’t seem to take the job seriously.
One doesn’t always know how to react to them. Next to their contrasting personalities, their biggest issue is the women in their lives, and there are times when you feel there’s a misogynistic streak to the screenplay as this pair of Frick and Fracks bewail the treacherous, stab in the back ways they are treated by the opposite sex. At the same time, both Alvin and Lance become so annoying at times, you fully understand why the fairer sex is treating them the way they are and you think they more than deserve everything they get; you’d almost love to take that knife and twist it around yourselves a few times.
In full disclosure, I’m not that big a fan of David Gordon Green, who wrote and directed this film. I found both George Washington and Snow Angels to be mind-numbingly slow with the only positive aspect from either of them being the discovery of actor Paul Schneider. At the same time, though there’s nothing that special about this movie, as it goes along, it does gain a certain winsomeness to it. To keep with the shaggy dog metaphor, there are many occasions when you’d like to reach out and pet it.
In addition, Green constantly cuts from the characters and languorously lingers on the nature that surrounds them: trees, caterpillars, rivers. Half the time, these shots bring a special neo-spiritual feel to the movie. But to be perfectly honest, it must also be said that the other half of the time, it feels as if these scenes are more filler, as though Green is trying to make more of something than is there. I’m not convinced it all really adds up to a whole.
There is one scene that achieves a moment of transcendence that shows what the movie could have been. At one point, Alvin, while communing with nature, comes across an old woman searching through the ashes of her home that was burned down by a devastating fire. Something definitely magical happens here, especially when you find out that the woman is not who she appears to be. But this through line also feels a bit underused with no real payoff. The movie finales on a rather puzzling note that clouds rather than clarifies and as a result, we get an ingratiating film, but in the end, one that’s more of a shaggy dog story without a punch line.