It's nearly unavoidable in discussing The Canyons to have Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience enter the conversation as well. The parallels are manifold: a micro budget, a day-and-date theatrical/digital release, and most outwardly, a major porn star in the lead role under the direction of a majorly acclaimed filmmaker.
There is also, of course, a sexual theme at the core of both movies, and an underlying defiance of cinematic convention—as again most outwardly manifested by the respective porn star leads. But where The Canyons director Paul Schrader takes this defiance one step further than Soderbergh did is in plunking his porn star, James Deen, amid professional Hollywood actors ... most notably perennial walking disaster and female co-headliner Lindsay Lohan.
Remember that in Girlfriend Experience, every role—Sasha Grey's included—was played by someone whose actual career to some degree corresponded with that of their character's; all were non-thespians, and that was part of its whole experimental gambit. In a sense, what Schrader has done with Deen is more daring, in that it places a far greater burden on Deen's shoulders to disprove the popular stereotype that porn stars can't act—in Grey's case, after all, she was on an even playing field with her co-stars in regard to expectations of her actorly prowess.
Ironically, Soderbergh's uniform cast of non-actors roundly turned in better performances than Schrader's mixed bag does in The Canyons, and ultimately, the former experiment yielded a more artistically viable outcome than the latter. At the same time, The Canyons will almost surely be more of a commercial success, if for no other reason than, as Deen himself told the LA Times upon its release, you get to see Lindsay Lohan's boobs in it.
It could also be argued that the movie is more accessible to the generation it purports to be about—i.e. the "post-theatrical" one, as Schrader has christened it—given its relatively straightforward narrative and attempt, at least, to speak to said generation's newfangled norms of interaction and gratification. Everything is arranged, recorded and transmitted via iPhones, and sexual encounters are as readily ordered up as a Domino's pizza.
From a broader perspective, the very fact of Deen's marquee billing alongside Lohan says something in and of itself about this generation's nonchalance regarding porn and general perception of it as just another arena of the media megalosphere. To a generation that's grown up with a limitless supply of pornography—and every other sort of media—instantly available right at their fingertips, is James Deen as much a celebrity as Lindsay Lohan?
Furthermore, what does it say about the eradication of the line between the worlds of porn and mainstream that a porn performer whose stage name is a one-letter-away riff on that of a Hollywood screen icon has now seen that name join the original's in the same "legit" pantheon of movie stars?
One motif that rings rather false in The Canyons is the recurring imagery of dilapidated, long-abandoned movie houses—all too heavy-handedly suggesting that theaters are a relic of the past, which very simply is anything but the case, and has little to do with the actual story.
And to get to that story, penned as (most are well aware) by Bret Easton Ellis, it's engagingly lurid and more than mildly complicated; blink and you could easily lose track of who's sleeping behind whose back, who used to be involved with whom, and how any one character is getting manipulated by which other at any given time. In the end, though, despite its amusing tagline "It's not The Hills," The Canyons proves to be pretty much just that, minus the bogus "reality" pretense and plus Lindsay Lohan's boobs. The whole production has an MTV Studios feel to it, which may or may not be intentional—it's really anyone's guess.
Either way, Lohan may have been right to fear, as that infamous New York Times muckraking piece reported she did, getting upstaged by Deen. He may not be DiCaprio, but the guy's got screen presence, and truly at the very least holds his own opposite her in commanding the camera's attention.
It should be noted, since it really hasn't been anywhere else thus far, that Deen's triple-X cohorts Danny Wylde and Lily LaBeau both appear in the movie—and smooch Lohan—as well. And in Wylde's scene, wherein Deen begins shooting the proceedings on his iPhone while Wylde disrobes and makes out with Lohan, you almost get the feeling that Lohan is the outsider in the room ... an interesting inversion of dynamics.
The Canyons is neither awful nor great. It's a curious piece of moviemaking that serves as an entertaining enough diversion for an evening at home or, yes, at the theater; but more than anything, it's fodder for all sorts of debate that's bound to continue for years to come over the ever-evolving nature of media, how we consume it, and how much difference there really is between the kind with naked people in it and the kind without.