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Bret Easton Ellis Revisits The Informers

The cast sounds promising: Billy Bob Thornton as an icy studio head; Mickey Rourke as an amoral lowlife; Chris Isaak as a drunken philanderer who can’t resist making sloppy passes at his son’s dates; and the late Brad Renfro, in his final role, as a jittery hotel clerk with possible connections to the shadiest of underworlds.

With a group like that, The Informers might have made for a brilliantly slow-burning film noir, a hard-boiled confidential befitting its L.A. setting. Even the name sounds like vintage Raymond Chandler. But The Informers envisions a world conceived not by Chandler or James Ellroy, but by Bret Easton Ellis, and so we find ourselves whisked back to 1983, watching soulless sons and daughters of privilege snorting themselves into a stupor while their self-involved parents shrug with indifference.

Those familiar with Ellis’ best-known writings – Less Than Zero (1985) and American Psycho (1991) – may recognize The Informers as a product of the author’s well-documented obsession with reckless Me-generation hedonism, or they might just dismiss it as a formulaic retread. I wouldn’t argue with either, though it must be noted that Ellis wrote most of his 1994 novel, a collection of clumsily interwoven short stories, during his college years. Back then, while he was hardly wanting for ideas, he lacked the sophistication to mold them into a cohesive narrative, and it shows here.

All of which leaves us with Gregor Jordan’s relentlessly bleak and ultimately dissatisfying adaptation, based on a screenplay co-written by Ellis. The Informers has been accused by critics of being “a wretched piece of garbage,” “an aimless mess” and, perhaps most damningly, “TMZ with phony gravitas.” And they’re not wildly off the mark. This is a bad movie. But, unlike the selfish, self-deluded characters whose company it forces upon us, the movie has redeeming qualities.

There’s that cast, for one thing. Thornton, Isaak and Kim Basinger, on hand as a jilted trophy wife who's taken to sleeping with male prostitutes, are every bit as convincing as you’d expect them to be. (Rourke, last seen in The Wrestler, is barely in evidence.) Even the younger, lesser-known leads – Jon Foster as Graham, a drug dealer ill at ease with his girlfriend’s swinging lifestyle, Austin Nichols as an almost comically vacuous music-video director – deliver performances that, while stiff and emotionless, seem perfectly suited to the barrenness of their characters.

The movie itself is an rhythmless mess, but it’s rarely dull. There are too many scenes that lead nowhere, subplots hinted at but never explained, and Winona Ryder lurking curiously on the sidelines as a TV news anchor looking to end a messy affair. Ellis seems content to develop his characters only to a point – their stories have beginnings and middles, but nary an ending.

Would The Informers have been a better movie if Ellis had offered some kind of tidy resolution? Maybe, although I can’t imagine how he could have done that with so many characters leading such disparate lives. He does offer us a glimpse of the future in the form of Christie (Amber Heard), Graham’s sexed up girlfriend, whose alarming decay signals the onset of the AIDS epidemic. Whether a similar fate awaits Christie’s many partners is left to the imagination.

The Informers offers an experience I can’t recommend, much as I believe there is a worthwhile movie waiting to be discovered in its hodgepodge mix of convoluted plotlines. It ushers us into a joyless world of ugly people trapped in uglier circumstances, and makes us feel just a little dirtier for having watched them. It might leave you miserable, or it might leave you angry, but it does make you feel something – proof you’re more appreciably human than any of the characters on screen.