[24 April 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
If there is one name that’s synonymous with over-generalized ‘80s ennui, it’s Bret Easton Ellis. From his initial literary phenomenon Less than Zero to the publishing scandal that was American Psycho, this so called savant has obsessed on the hedonistic decadence of the Greed Decade to the point where he’s literally blurred the lines between truth and taboo. Indeed, most of his stories seem shocking in their lack of human connectivity and with their rampant descent into sex and violence, he appears numb to the normalcy of individual existence. Now comes The Informers, a planned “satire” that was sidetracked by a studio wanting a more studied period piece. What they wound up with instead is a scattered, frequently intriguing omnibus that makes the audience work too hard to find something satisfying.
When their best buddy dies in a freak car accident, drug dealer Graham, video director Martin, their mutual gal pal sex partner Christie, and the rest of their cocaine-fueled friends take stock of their spoiled rich kid life in 1984 Los Angeles. When they’re not zooming around town playing grown-up, they are watching their parents fall in and out of love and loyalty. This includes Graham’s mother and father, who split up when he, a studio executive, began a torrid affair with a fresh faced news anchor. It devastated her life, to the point where she’s taken up with one of her son’s friends. Then there’s rock star Bryan Metro, returning to California for the first time since his previous band broke up amid the death of one of its members. He hopes to reconnect with his damaged wife and kid. Finally, Graham’s doorman Jack is being pestered by his criminal uncle who has the unsettling idea of kidnapping a young child to settle his illegal debts.
At its core, The Informers wants to be a tale about inevitability. It wants to argue that no matter what you do, no matter the precautions you take or the care you give to your decisions, the end result is predetermined by the situation you find yourself in to begin with. So when the late Brad Renfro discovers his felonious relative Mickey Rourke on his doorstep one day, the decision to not call the cops results in his eventual collaboration in an unspeakable crime. Similarly, when party boy Martin is marked as a bisexual prostitute selling his favors for whatever he can get, the cloud of AIDS that’s hanging over the story’s subtext is bound to make an appearance. Indeed, in this wasted world of bright lights, bad pastels, and an overreliance on Ray-bans, everything hinted at - homosexuality, promiscuity, self-gratifying excess - eventually comes back to bite the people populating this particular patch of Sodom.
But that doesn’t mean the movie works. Not at all. This is nothing more than Short Cuts with shortcuts. Indeed, Gregor Jordan, an Aussie with a resume that barely suggests an ability to handle a multi-faceted and dysfunctional narrative, spends so much time suggesting and inferring that he never gets around to actually answering any questions. What is the problem between the clearly alcoholic Chris Isaac and his dandy, determined son? Why is Kim Basinger always on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and what was the “horrible thing” Billy Bob Thorton did to destroy their marriage? Does Christie have AIDS, or is she just another half-dressed supermodel corpse rotting in the LA sun, and is her propensity toward body fluid swapping going to doom those she’s favored? If it were sleazy fun, or seriously insightful, we might enjoy the experience. But Jordan, working from a heavily edited script by Easton himself and collaborator Nicholas Jarecki, thinks that somber is the same thing as dramatic. Somewhere along the line he got “engaging” and “inert” mixed up.
His cast tries, through an almost unrecognizable Brad Renfro (in his last film appearance, sadly) is a bit too mannered as the everyman tossed into his Uncle’s pedophilic like predicament. One of the biggest problems facing The Informers is the decision to cast a bunch of faceless pretty kids from the CW school of character representation. Basinger has presence. Thorton, when he’s not looking like he’s lost in a wave of near unconsciousness, has presence. Even Rourke going gonzo again has presence. But the semi-clothed wanna-tweens taking up space as supposed refugees from the by-gone era of blow and bad hair are like interchangeable dolls in Mattel’s new Really Bad Bratz line. Their acting may be adequate and their look reminiscent of a time that would support both Adam Ant and Jerry Falwell, but that’s where the charisma ends.
Indeed, by the time we see the tripwire rocker beat a corn-fed groupie, when Christie lays covered in sores from what seems like a weekend battling HIV, when Basinger makes her charity function move, we’ve stopped paying attention to the plot points. Instead, The Informers is by then coasting on a decent soundtrack, a nominal look, and a surreal sense of watching highly paid celebrities acting awkward for the sake of an unclear endgame. True, Jordan thinks he’s pitching a period meditation on the last bastions of freewheeling excess before Mrs. Reagan and the “gay plague” would come along and take all the fun out of life. Someone probably has a really insightful multi-character look at LA sitting around in their laptop, a truly important work that doesn’t substitute MTV for meaning or casual fornication for the shape of things to come. Bret Easton Ellis has made quite a career out of carving up the ‘80s into disposable bits of bite-size irony. With The Informers, the nibbles are nice, but the overall meal is bloated with unnecessary excess.