Long before he got around to penning his controversial and largely misunderstood masterpiece, American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis made his literary debut with the novel Less Than Zero. The year was 1985 and his subject was the frequently self-destructive strategies the young, rich, and beautiful of Los Angeles. They killed a lot of time which, like so many other things, they possessed in abundance. Sex, drugs, and nihilism figured prominently.
Ellis was 21 when the book made him a household name (the movie version which followed in 1987 helped) but, as young as he was when the novel came out, he’d already been writing along similarly debauched lines for years. As you take in “The Informers,” try for the fun of it to imagine a teenager typing it all out in a dorm room, for that’s how far back this material dates. The collection of interlocking stories on which the film is based was published under the same title in 1994 but was written nearly a decade and a half earlier when Ellis was still in college.
For this reason it shouldn’t come as a shock that we are not dealing with the author’s most accomplished work here, much less the stuff of timeless literature. For connoisseurs curious about the evolution of his art, “The Informers” will provide insight into the gestation of Ellis’ signature obsessions. Anyone else is likely to wonder what its producers imagined moviegoers of today would find of interest in this drama of dysfunction and ennui set in the early 80s.
There are so many major stars in this thing it’s really hard to believe it’s not, you know, better. I’m a huge Billy Bob Thornton man and recently watched the remake of “The Bad News Bears” on TV just because he was in it and enjoyed myself strictly on the basis of his mojo. He does the ensemble thing this time around in the role of a wealthy Hollywood producer who’s alienated his two adult children by cheating on his wife (Kim Basinger) with a local news anchor (Wynona Ryder).
This is one of those “Crash”-style pictures with interwoven narrative strands. The problem here is that most of the strands wind up little more than loose ends. What happens to Billy Bob in the long run? Who knows? He vanishes shortly after receiving an injection of an unnamed drug in the groin with the assistance of Basinger – who promptly disappears from the story too. As does Ryder.
Most of the movie’s 98-minute running time is devoted to extended scenes of sumptuously shot soft-core porn conducted in decidedly businesslike fashion primarily between a rich and beautiful threesome played by Jon Foster, Austin Nichols (Foster’s best friend), and “Pineapple Express’” Amber Heard. In addition to one another, they do a great deal of popular 80s drugs. I suspect the viewer is supposed to be shocked by the casual sex and substance abuse, but my bet is the vision most audience members will find indelibly burned into their memory is that of Nichols’ hair. I thought characters only sported Flock of Seagulls coifs in Adam Sandler comedies.
Anyway, that part of the movie relies for poignance on the sudden and lethal emergence of AIDS. One of the three contracts the virus and director Gregor Jordan (“Buffalo Soldiers”) develops his film in pretty much the same way horror directors have traditionally dealt with the subject of premarital sex. Boink outside of holy wedlock and don’t be surprised if Jason axes his way into your cabin at Camp Crystal Lake.
While “The Informers” isn’t terribly coherent, insightful, or groundbreaking, its production design is impressively slick. A number of performances are compelling, if frustratingly open-ended. Yet one storyline stands out from the rest as though trying to break free and become its own movie: Mickey Rourke gives a bloodcurdling performance as an ex-con who kidnaps a boy off the street in broad daylight and plans to sell him to a cartel that specializes in untraceable young flesh. Rourke shows up with his merchandise unannounced at the home of his nephew, played in his final screen turn by the late Brad Renfro. Suffice it to say it’s the picture’s one strand with not only a beginning, middle, and resolution but a sense of credible moral struggle. This time it’s Renfro who’s the wrestler, weighing his allegiance to his flesh and blood against the fate that awaits the terrified child bound and gagged in his bathtub.
The movie has its moments – on top of an A-list cast from which one keeps hoping for more – but I wouldn’t expect it to make much of a mark even in a season dominated by cinematic artists such as Vin Diesel, Miley Cyrus, and The Rock. The fact is, there simply isn’t a whole lot to it. If it didn’t bear the Ellis label, public interest likely would be less than zero.