"The Canyons" -- a tale of young, vapid, sexually insatiable Z-listers in Hollywood -- had the credentials to be deliciously awful fun:

It stars none other than Lindsay Lohan, the talented but troubled actress whose personal life has been a staple of tabloids. It features porn stud James Deen, who has appeared in countless adult films. It's written by Bret Easton Ellis, author of the trashy classics "Less Than Zero" and "American Psycho." And it's directed by the formidable Paul Schrader, the man behind sexually charged material such as "Cat People" and "American Gigolo."

As it turns out, "The Canyons" isn't deliciously fun -- or totally awful, for that matter. It's a misfire, to be sure, but it's fascinating (or something else, depending on your perspective) to behold Lohan's attempt at a big-screen comeback.

In her worst moments, she seems bored and distracted. When she's focused, you can feel the ache of her being lost and desperate, even under the cakes of unflattering makeup. Perhaps unfairly to Lohan, because of her real-life backstory, you are left to wonder whether she feels trapped in this movie, or in the vortex of her offscreen travails. Whatever the case, she cannot be accused of being boring, or untalented.

Though "The Canyons" captures the vapidity of these dimwitted souls all too well, the film falls short in its ambitions to be a psychological character study. Ellis' script simply doesn't go deep enough -- and thus the actions and motivations of these folks often lack plausibility. It would have been interesting to see what Deen, who has a decent screen presence, could have done with a more well-drawn character.

Perhaps the biggest surprise (and problem) is that the movie barely registers on the "lurid" scale, despite its nudity and sex scenes. This is a story that needed a steady supply of super-trashy set pieces, because the indistinguishable characters cannot keep us engaged. But almost every time something tawdry (and potentially interesting) is about to happen, the film pulls its punches and leaves the action.

That is no way to treat the viewer -- or a Z-lister.

Not rated.

100 minutes.

David Lewis is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email davidlewis@sfchronicle.com.

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