A California blonde abandons her boyfriend to chat with his sister and then dives into a foursome with the boyfriend’s friend and another couple because she can. An adored rock star finds an underwear-clad young woman from Nebraska waiting for him in his room — he gets her to role-play up her girl-next-door appeal before kissing her gently, putting his hand around her throat, and giving her face his fist. A dodgy man kidnaps a pre-adolescent boy because he knows some even shadier types who pay a pretty penny for a package like that. Welcome to the 1983 Los Angeles of director Gregor Jordan’s The Informers.
If only the movie had anything to say about such unpleasantness instead of falling into a reactionary comfort zone. Beautiful people doing ugly things: That’s pretty much the working idea behind a large slice of contemporary entertainment, from the generically beautiful people doing childish things on reality-TV programs to the idealized young hard bodies getting hacked to pieces in contemporary horror’s gore porn. Bret Easton Ellis didn’t invent this subgenre of fantasy, but he did perfect a peculiarly and purposely empty version of it in his novels of 1980s excess, including Less Than Zero and American Psycho. His 1994 The Informers reins in the over-crank of Psycho, but it’s also more structurally elusive, offering a loosely interconnected cast of characters and storylines that mine an early 1980s Los Angeles of night-crawlers and day-walkers, each fogged over by self-medication and some kind of emotional distress.
Ellis and screenwriter Nicholas Jarecki compress the source novel’s meandering plotlines and distanced, antiseptic tone into a single year, literalizing many of the novel’s relationships and cause-and-effect situations. This compression gives the storylines a more manageable trajectory, but it also kills the novel’s sense of drift. In the movie, everybody and everything feeds back to some vague notion of a central theme, and Jordan opts for one of the oldest and most convenient: a search for the difference between right and wrong.
Yes, Ellis’s imaginative exploitation of the complications of living a privileged, seemingly consequence-free lifestyle has been turned into a facile morality play. It’s a bit like trying to argue that the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom is simply a parable about why it’s bad to kidnap underage boys and girls and sexually abuse them before subjecting them to heinously inventive ways to die.
Jordan resorts to such licentious overkill, depicting decadence only to judge it. Casual drug-dealer Graham (Foster) mopes around looking serious, feeling something about the way his girlfriend Christie (Heard) freely goes to bed with his friend Martin (Austin Nichols), with whom Graham also occasionally sleeps. Graham’s studio-exec father William (Thornton) is equally adrift, trying to get back together with his estranged wife Laura (Kim Basinger) after leaving her for local newscaster Cheryl (Ryder). Laura herself seeks solace in meds and Martin’s body. Meanwhile, rock star Bryan Metro (Raido, who, in the right severe lighting, does a pretty good Peter Murphy) floats through his L.A. tour stop on a rollercoaster of drugs, booze, and illicit sex.
All these characters collide in moments of fortuitous circumstance to hammer home the movie’s conventional morality. The few times the movie conveys the novel’s more slippery tone arrive in interstitial images that capture L.A.’s highways clogged with cars, each hurrying along, purposeless. Ellis isn’t some wise sage or even acerbic quill of his era, but he understood his characters enough to explore their destination-unknown existences with eyes and ears open to their thoughts and deeds. Jordan’s Informers merely wants to rub people’s noses in the self-destructive follies of 1980s wealth.