Film: Decadent Narcissists, Boozy Bohemians

So I kinda liked The Canyons.

There, I said it. The summer’s indie cause célèbre/laughingstock, which had reviewers falling over themselves coming up with clever ways to poke fun at its depiction of Los Angeles’ idle rich, is actually a wicked psychosexual snapshot of the preening, overprivileged twentysomethings dabbling in moviemaking wheeling and dealing at the industry’s margins. It suffers from serious tone issues and stilted performances that work as tongue-in-cheek jabs at Tinseltown types but fall flat once more gravity is required of the attractive cast, but it captures that ever elusive vibe that wafts off those rolling hills like the smog that suffocated the town in the 70s and 80s.

The Canyons, one of two dysfunctional relationship chronicles I’m reviewing this week, was directed by Paul Schrader from a screenplay by novelist Bret Easton Ellis, and the creative pairing delivers results that are smutty and pervasively homoerotic, which is unsurprising, given the men’s body of work, but still noteworthy insofar as the extent that the suggestive imagery takes over the film, considering none of the main characters are gay. (Ellis would probably reject such constricting labels anyway.)

Following a moody, spellbinding opening montage of dilapidated movie theaters, we eavesdrop on dinner conversation by two couples. Formerly struggling L.A. beauty Tara (Lindsay Lohan) has been living with trust fund brat Christian (porn star James Deen) at their chic Hollywood Hills mansion. Bored and looking for something to occupy her time from satisfying her vain b.f.’s sexually adventurous needs, she agrees to help out her friend Gina on a slasher film she has been developing, going so far as lobbying for Ryan (Nolan Funk), Gina’s boyfriend, to be cast in the lead role.

Whenever Tara and Christian aren’t gazing into their iPhones – which serve a pivotal narrative role later on – they look directly into the camera, and cinematographer John DeFazio, who turns out to be the movie’s secret weapon, gazes right back at them, capturing the icons in all their Barbie-and-Ken-doll blankness. Ellis gradually peels back his rather thin story’s layers, uncovering hidden connections between the characters, but I got the feeling Schrader is more interested in the themes that linger at the edges of the narrative. What the film’s detractors have neglected to mention is that Schrader and Ellis are also keen on exploring the complicated interaction between Hollywood’s haves and have-nots. It’s Howards End with a Real Housewives face lift.

The Canyons also has a field day mining heterosexual men’s discomfort in being other men’s object of desire, such as an amusing scene where Ryan steps into his gay boss’ office and proves he’d be willing to do anything to get a heftier paycheck out of his employer. The way DeFazio frames the shot, Ryan is basically staring directly into his boss’ crotch. It all leads to a provocative scene in which the victimized Tara, virtually forced to engage in a four-way with Christian and another couple, turns the table on her paranoid boyfriend. Like much of The Canyons, the scene is pure filth, but it’s filth with an eye for depicting the way the we behave in the bedroom dictates the way we lead our lives. It’s in the way it uses sexual politics as an allegorical deconstruction of the moviemaking process that The Canyons is at its strongest.

Alas, Ellis and Schrader demand viewer empathy for Tara’s emotional distress, and here’s when the film falters. The movie’s defenders cite Lohan’s performance as being head and shoulders above the rest of the onscreen mannequins, and undoubtedly, as long as the filmmakers register the layers of insecurity and despair in her face, she commands our attention. But just as often she’s every bit as stiff and ill at ease as her co-stars, who all seem to be operating at different earnestness-versus-bemusement-ratio. A few incongruous goofy faces aside, Deen appears to be reciting his lines like a bored fashion model, which is fine when Ellis’ screenplay is satirizing his thematic territory but more problematic when he’s shouldered with assuming villainous duties. Ellis’ decision to pay eleventh-hour homage to American Psycho does The Canyons no favors.

If Tara and Christian have to deal with their distinctive brand of West Coast ennui, the Midwestern brewers at the heart of Joe Swanberg’s Chicago-set Drinking Buddies have their own bohemian, occasionally annoying brand of baggage to process. Swanberg, an ubiquitous presence in front of (the horror ensemble piece You’re Next) as well as behind the camera in many indie films, finally gets the chance to shepherd a project with a sizable budget – look Ma, no shoestrings – and an impressive cast headlined by Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson as Kate and Luke, employees at a Chicago brewery, reportedly an up and coming scene in the Windy City, that engage in some friendly joshing and flirting that suggests they’d be perfect for each other … if it weren’t for the fact that they’re already in relationships.

Kate’s stuck-up, lit snob boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston) invites Luke and longtime girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick) to his cousin’s cabin, a spectacularly misbegotten idea that strongly hints at the possibility of partner swapping, but in Swanberg’s hands, yields booze-fueled neurotic behavior and co-dependent passive aggression. It’s all a bit much, but stick with Drinking Buddies, because Swanberg, a talent to watch out for, doesn’t exactly take the story in the direction you’d expect. A late-in-the-game argument between Kate and Luke, for instance, is so affecting that it’s alone worth the price of admission. How will these hipsters’ relationship trouble shake out? To his credit, he dares to leave things tantalizingly unresolved, even if he pilfers the ending of Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s Big Night in the process.

Drinking Buddies and The Canyons are now available on Video on Demand, but why would you want to see them that way? Buddies starts Friday at the Bill Cosford Cinema (cosfordcinema.com). That same day, The Canyons is ready for its closeup at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (mbcinema.com).

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