Once upon a time, post–Mean Girls, Hollywood truly thought Lindsay Lohan could carry a movie. On Sunday night, she toted one straight to basic cable: Labor Pains, her latest project, lost its theatrical release and got bumped down to ABC Family, where it debuted between several half hours of religious programming and a movie starring Melissa Joan Hart. That’s a rough setback for an actress who’s already experienced enough epic lows and highs (some allegedly quite literal) for a lifetime. But LiLo’s biggest problem isn’t where Labor Pains premiered; it’s that, despite her perfectly fine performance, watching it exposes that this subpar script is apparently the best she could get — and that her career’s trajectory officially may have plunged from rock bottom to six feet under.
Certainly, plenty of actresses — good and bad — pay the rent with cable movies, and we like it that way: Without them we’d have spent many a sick day on the couch with no guilty-pleasure medicine but our timeworn DVD of Clueless. Sarah Chalke, so cute on Scrubs, did two Lifetime projects in the past three years. Kellie Martin and Tracey Gold, of Life Goes On and Growing Pains fame, respectively, became staples of the kind of horror-lite, shot-in-soft-focus fare that gets titles like Live Once, Die Twice, and Beauty’s Revenge. And in the annals of cheesy TV, Tori Spelling will be remembered almost as fondly for her Lifetime masterwork Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? as for her time on Beverly Hills, 90210. But these differ vastly from Lohan’s current predicament: She is an exceptionally famous girl whose first movie in two years — and five after her last legit hit — couldn’t even make it to the big screen. Moreover, those other actresses never had equal film success (or tabloid notoriety), and thus none of their entertainingly low-rent projects bears the same oblivious whiff of Eau d’ Downward Spiral that haunts Labor Pains. We suspect it only got as far as ABC Family because some executive looked up “schadenfreude” in the dictionary and saw dollar signs.
That Lohan is in a career pothole of this magnitude at all indicates she either has no options, no judgment, or both. Remember back in 2006 when her mother fought rumors of Lindsay’s on-set unprofessionalism on Georgia Rule by swearing she’d win an Oscar for it? Yeah, that didn’t happen: Critically reviled, the film asked people to enjoy watching LiLo play a brat who teased a male naïf into exploring her crotch. No, really. So maybe it’s no surprise that she signed on to Labor Pains, despite there being nothing endearing or clever in the plot about a struggling girl who fakes a pregnancy to keep her job (evidently a messy ponytail and sensible pants are code for “poor”). It reeks of a project Lohan took out of blind desperation because her reputation as a hellion preceded her, and she was too antsy to wait for Hollywood to forgive, forget, and pony up something worthwhile. Which this wasn’t: Rather than being bad in that hilarious, watch-with-your-friends-and-scream way, Labor Pains is flat and boring — the first five minutes lean on dog puke and a crabby codger for yuks — in a way even Cheryl Hines and Chris Parnell can’t rise above. And when you’re dead to the healing magic of 30 Rock’s Dr. Spaceman, the situation is grim indeed.
It’s a shame, because in the film Lohan does try. Lindsay’s problem has never been lack of talent — just lack of judgment — and in fact, she’s probably the best thing about the movie (except maybe the part where it ended and we turned it off). But at this point, her best isn’t enough: She alone can’t elevate a movie if the script is a dud, and looking this hard up for work never helps rehabilitate a career. For the Great Labor Pains Catastrophe of 2009 to be remembered as a glitch instead of one of the final nails in her coffin, Lindsay’s best bet actually may be to stop trying altogether. Seriously, Linds, do nothing. Don’t even leave the house. Just be patient and let the world miss you while you hunt for a project that’s worth all that effort. Otherwise, in ten years we may be watching you on TV hawking bail bonds as we tell our kids we knew you when. And then the mean girls will have won, after all.