I think we’re all past thinking that Lindsay Lohan can have the career that should have been hers had her personal problems not taken over her life. Emma Stone took over that career already. But as a fan of Lohan’s acting, I have wondered — actually, I have spent time worrying — whether she has lost her gifts entirely. As a child and teen actress, Lohan had an adult quality that brought a weight to her characters. And in a movie like Freaky Friday, which was already objectively good, Lohan’s seriousness, and perhaps even her sadness, made her scenes wonderful, and lifted the film even higher.
So more than anything else, the sad question hanging over The Canyons, directed by Paul Schrader, written by Bret Easton Ellis, and starring Lohan and pornstar James Deen, is whether Lohan has once again fallen on her face. And since there is considerable nudity — we’re now arguing in my office about whether she’s topless three times or more than that — has she done it in an especially humiliating, exploitative way.
As Lohan’s material has gotten worse — hi, Liz & Dick, I love you so much, but you are terrible! — I have feared that the stilted quality that has crept into her line readings was now just her acting style. Forever. Neither the trailer for The Canyons nor this scene released last winter did anything to assuage my fear. In both, Lohan sounds like she is reading lines for the first time, and they’re not even lines she’s comfortable saying.
But in the actual movie? She’s quite good! First of all, she sounds like a human being who is talking to other human beings — sweet relief. But that’s only her jumping over the low bar she’s set for herself because of the recent Liz & Dick debacle, her full-body cringe-inducing Saturday Night Live hosting gig, her Glee appearance, and even her short arc on Ugly Betty in 2008. Forget those. Here, she improves Ellis’ flat dialogue, which is in the style typical of his novels: repeated ennui-filled pronouncements about American Life.
Her character, Tara, is a directionless mess who has fallen into a kept existence with a sociopathic trust-fund kid (Deen) who loves — “loves” is probably the wrong word — bringing strangers into their bed. Tara goes along with that, and if you don’t know why (does she like it?) that’s not her fault, it’s Ellis’. Lohan seems appropriately tired and scared, with flashes of bravery. She is present and even charismatic (Tara is supposed to be too beaten down to be charismatic often).
Having become a novelty act, for now at least, Lohan is only being cast in roles that can exploit her tabloid persona as a wreck. And that’s true in The Canyons, too, in which Tara is like a Courtney Love lyric come to life (“When I wake up/In my makeup…” of “Celebrity Skin,” for instance) than a real person. But as opposed to when she played the always late, chronically ill, substance-abusing Elizabeth Taylor, which only revealed Lohan as diminished, her Tara taps into that resilience that Lohan seems to have in her real life. I mean, she could have died already, right? But as of this week, she’s out of rehab (again) to try (again) to live in this world.
In January, the New York Times Magazine story, “Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie,” chronicled director Paul Schrader’s predictably insane experience trying to get Lohan to show up to act in this movie. It painted her — accurately I’m sure — as an irresponsible flake who is her own worst enemy. Yes.
But the other thing that happens when you cast Lindsay Lohan is that she can make this movie, which dances into Sharknado territory more than once, but without the self-aware irony of Sharknado, into a real movie. With a heroine at the center.