Following Watchmen and Adventureland, this year’s cinematic fit of 1980s nostalgia continues with The Informers, a film based on the Bret Easton Ellis story collection of the same name. Though published in 1994, The Informers’ stories take place in the era benumbed by Ronald Reagan, MTV, Ray-Bans and Bolivian marching powder, and hark back to a time when Ellis was a famous literary figure, if not exactly a major one.
Ellis specialized in deliberately bland accounts of young people indulging in sex, drugs and other hollow pursuits for hip hit novels such as his debut Less Than Zero. Ellis and contemporaries such as Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney could never shake charges of shallowness, but at least their work provoked public arguments about serious fiction. In contrast, the most famous writers of this decade inspire fan sites about boy wizards and shiny vampires.
Some directors have treated Ellis’ work as blank canvases for splashy creativity. Christian Bale and director Mary Harmon brought out the black comedy in American Psycho’s account of a crazed yuppie scumbag, while Roger Avary applied vigorous cinematic excess to match Rules of Attraction’s airhead collegiate lifestyles. With The Informers, however, director Gregor Jordan seems to take Ellis’ vapid observations at face value and delivers a glitzy study in obviousness.
In yet another Short Cuts-inspired tour through the intersecting lives of disparate Los Angelenos, The Informers depicts a circle of young, bottle-blond partiers and some of their parents. Among the spoiled young things, Graham (Jon Foster) gradually grows to realize that maybe there's more to life than group sex involving his bombshell girlfriend, Christie (Amber Heard), and music video director Martin (Austin Nichols), who seems to be sleeping with half the film's characters. When Graham bemoans his need for a deeper human connection, he declares, “I need someone to tell me what’s good and I need someone to tell me what’s bad.” Although the film features songs from the likes of Devo and Flock of Seagulls, Graham and his pals bring to mind Simple Minds.
In 2001, Jordan helmed the overlooked, hilarious account of drug-addled U.S. servicemen Buffalo Soldiers, but here he seems to have no idea how to direct the younger actors or set a tone for their glib roles. The young glitterati have so many nude scenes and overact so awkwardly that The Informers occasionally resembles a pay-cable erotic thriller more than a social commentary with serious artistic ambitions. Even the late Brad Renfro, to whom The Informers is dedicated, overacts as Jack, a rabbity hotel bellman who gets caught up in his uncle’s criminal enterprise.
Mickey Rourke, in his first big-screen appearance since nearly winning the Best Actor Oscar for The Wrestler, brings his menacing charisma to the role of Jack’s skeevy uncle. His subplot hinges on a horrific but implausible crime that seems present simply to shock the audience with a display of heartless nihilism. The appearance of a yuppie in khaki shorts as a supposedly scary underworld enforcer proves laughable.
Like Rourke, the older actors deliver more substantive but underwritten performances, including Billy Bob Thornton. Thornton plays Graham’s father, a Hollywood producer who wants to reconcile with his wife (Kim Basinger) but maintain an affair with a local news broadcaster (a miscast, misused Winona Ryder). Mel Raido offers a convincing portrayal of a depressed, decadent Bryan Ferry-esque rock star called Bryan Metro, but the thread goes nowhere. The most vivid grown-up characterization comes from crooner Chris Isaak as Les Price, a boozing dad who tries to bond with his petulant, sexually ambiguous son (Lou Taylor Pucci) on a Hawaiian vacation. Isaak gives the role a dim-witted charm that suggests Les isn’t necessarily a bad guy, just a boor struggling to be a supportive parent.
The Informers’ characters seem to take forever to realize that maybe their problems with drugs and meaningless group sex may need a different solution than more drugs and meaningless group sex. The film’s glitzy nihilism gives way to a cheaply moralistic conclusion involving the dawn of AIDS. Perhaps The Informers offers deliberately thin characterizations and bad acting to comment on Los Angeles’ cultural vacancy, but spending so much time and talent on a flat, facile film seems like a waste of everyone’s time. The Informers’ impact can be summed up in about the length of a blurb on the back of a quality paperback.