Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Informers

Director: Gregor Jordan
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Kim Basinger, Winona Ryder, Mickey Rourke, Jon Foster, Amber Heard, Brad Renfro, Lou Taylor Pucci, Chris Isaak, Austin Nichols

Running Time: 98 min.

Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

"You can't make it in this town unless you're willing to do some awful things. And I'm willing."

There are good reasons why the literary works of Bret Easton Ellis are so infrequently adapted to the screen. Most of them can be found in The Informers, the latest attempt to make cinematic sense of the depraved worldview of an author whose self-absorbed, narcissistic characters reside in the shallow end of the moral cesspool. Just mentioning the writer's name is bound to evoke a wide variety of passionate responses, none of them all too favorable. It's a testament to his controversial material that producers only had the guts to adapt him three other times (Less Than Zero, American Psycho and The Rules of Attraction) and to exactly the kind of angry, polarizing reactions you'd expect.

Of the aforementioned titles, only American Psycho came closest to achieving what could barely be considered widespread acclaim, but even that has  many vocal detractors. If I ever decide to go through with a list of the decade's best films, Roger Avary's misunderstood and unfairly maligned adaptation of The Rules of Attraction would have to be considered a serious contender for it. A lot of that depth can be found in the similarly insane The Informers, which somehow manages to be a worthy successor and fascinating companion piece that didn't disappoint me in the slightest despite its almost intentionally blatant awfulness.

That Ellis is supposedly unhappy with director Gregor Jordan's treatment of his material (from a script the author co-wrote himself no less) is hilarious, considering that, for better or worse, this adaptation couldn't have more faithfully captured his world. It's almost as hilarious is the actual film, which is a trashy guilty pleasure that requires numerous showers to cleanse yourself of when it's over. Full of cheap thrills, it feels strange even referring to it as that since it's basically pointless to apologize for recommending any movie that features a pre-Wrestler Mickey Rourke kidnapping and selling children. And that's the least bizarre story thread in the picture.

If there were any justice Informers viewing parties and drinking games would be going on right now across the country. It's just that kind of movie. But there's no way you'll get me to admit that it's "so bad it's good" because a large part of me doesn't think it's bad at all, mostly because it isn't. There were scenes so funny I couldn't forget them even if I tried, yet also some really powerful performances, the best of which comes from an actor who's sadly no longer with us. Whether you view it as a comedy or a drama makes little difference because by not taking itself too seriously, but still knowing to take itself just seriously enough, it becomes both. You'll hate it. Hence, it's the quintessential Ellis adaptation.

The action opens in Los Angeles, 1983 and boy is it ever 1983. That's clear from the get-go with a decadent party that's part Miami Vice, part stylish music video. At it, Graham Sloane (Jon Foster) watches in horror as his friend Bruce is struck by a car and killed. His friends grieve at a hilariously inappropriate hotel funeral complete with a sushi bar and a Pat Benetar musical dedication. By "grieve" I mean that no one gives a shit except for Raymond (Aaron Himmelstein) who can't stop crying even though he hadn't a clue Bruce hated him.

Graham quickly returns to his regular routine of doing drugs and sleeping around with his hot, seemingly vacuous girlfriend Christie (Amber Heard) and best friend Martin (One Tree Hill's Austin Nichols, sporting maybe the most ridiculous hairstyle in cinematic history). Martin's secretly having an affair with Graham's pill-popping mother, Laura (Kim Basinger), who recently let her philandering movie producer husband William (Billy Bob Thornton) move back into the house after he was caught cheating on her with television news anchor Cheryl Laine (a wide-eyed Winona Ryder--- dressed like Nancy Reagan!).

The fourth friend, Tim (Lou Taylor Pucci) is off to Hawaii with his sleazeball of a father, Les (singer Chris Isaak) who besides suspecting his son is gay, is trying to put the moves on Tim's "date," Rachel (90210's Jessica Stroup). Then there's strung-out junkie Bryan Metro (Mel Raido), the lead singer of a new wave band called "The Informers," who can't remember whether or not he's ever lived in L.A. and is addicted to sex with minors. In a highlight scene, he punches a groupie in the face because...SHE'S FROM NEBRASKA. Sadly, that's as good a reason as any in a film this weird. Jackson (Brad Renfro in his final performance), a doorman in Graham's building, is a failed actor now on the outside looking in. He's faced with a huge moral dilemma when his creepy uncle, Peter (Mickey Rourke) re-enters his life and selfishly drags him into his criminal dealings. Of the deplorable characters, only Jackson and Tim have anything that resembles a conscience and Graham is just starting to realize he may be getting one. But it may be too late. Unfamiliar feelings of jealousy now overcome him every time he sees Christie with Martin as a deadly new disease called AIDS is waiting in the wings.

Vague comparisons have been made to Short Cuts, Magnolia, and even Boogie Nights in terms of narrative approach but the stories here don't interlock and most offer no easy resolution, which will frustrate many. The 1994 novel was a collection of short stories and that's just what this is. But as strange as it sounds considering this is being adapted from one of American fiction's most popular novelists, the actual story is almost beside the point. Ellis' work has always been more dependent on capturing a specific mood or feeling. This is a far different '80's than the warm, nostalgia-filled one presented in Adventureland earlier in the year, or the alternate version of the decade we saw in Watchmen. It's much more lived in.

The fashions (Ray-Bans), and the music (Flock of Seagulls, Wang Chung, Simple Minds) are all there but they exist only as part of this cold, desolate landscape of greed and excess. As frighteningly accurate as it's portrayed, it's even scarier that you rarely stop to notice. It just is. More than simply watching a movie, you've committed to taking a disturbing, time travel trip from which it seems there's no recovery. You're not just watching a re-creation of the decade, but you're there. For everyone who hates the film on an initial viewing I'd like to offer up a suggestion: Watch it again, but the second time as a comedy MADE DURING THE 80's. It shouldn't be difficult considering that's pretty much what it is. I'm convinced even the bad green screen effects and inserted stock footage of '80's L.A. was done intentionally to capture that retro feeling.

Ellis' writing always skirted the line between satire and tragedy and this one may be giving us our largest helping of both. What lifts (or maybe lowers) his stories to the tragic level is not the fact the characters are detestable human beings who hurt one another, but that they truly can't comprehend that they are. They just don't get it. That quote you see above was probably spoken by every member of this all-star cast to their agents when they received the script, but it was eventually delivered onscreen by Brad Renfro, who passed away from a drug overdose a week after filming wrapped.

Pudgy, sweaty, and overweight, the unrecognizable Renfro pours everything he has into the failed child actor turned doorman, as many lines he's given (and even the very essence of the character itself) eerily foreshadow his own death. One in particular that he delivers in the hotel lobby sent chills down my spine. You'd swear he had to know what was coming, which makes it impossible to separate the performance from the tragic circumstances surrounding it.

The parallels between his path and Jackson's is flat-out scary and unbearably disturbing. Just witness his jittery, nerve-ridden panic in the scene when his uncle's "business associate" comes to collect. Digging as deep as he did it's almost no wonder he died right after shooting wrapped. He literally gives  all there is of himself in a touching, heartbreaking final turn that he fittingly shares with Rourke, who brings a cocky, laid-back sleaze to this small-time crook and provides the perfect counterpoint to Renfro's wild bundle of nerves. Anyone looking for clues that Rourke would go on to deliver the performance he did in The Wrestler will find them even in this small role.

If there's a lead it's Jon Foster, whose Graham would be classified in the same category as other morally corrupt Ellis protagonists like Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman in American Psycho or his womanizing younger brother Sean in The Rules of Attraction if not for the fact that he's actually starting to develop real feelings for another person. That's a first in Ellis land. But the heart and soul of the movie belongs to Amber Heard as Christie in a performance as memorable for what she bravely doesn't show as what she does. Despite going topless in nearly every one of her scenes, Heard transcends what should be a superficial gimmick to cut to the core of the film's meaning.

Is Christie even aware that she's hurting Graham? Does she care? Does she know she's killing herself with her reckless behavior? There are moments where we think she does and others where we think she doesn't have the slightest clue. But Heard never lets us judge her, and in a film full of self-centered characters to hate, it's difficult to despise this one. With very little dialogue she chooses play her as lost, not a slut. Through her eyes we see the story and its message is clear: The party's about to end.
Amongst a cast comprised of various Oscar winning and nominated actors, the young blood of Renfro, Heard and Foster are the backbone of the picture, but that's not to say the veteran performers are phoning it in at all. Billy Bob Thornton intriguingly turns a philandering husband into a creepy psychopath while Kim Basinger is effectively cold as ice as his unloved and emotionally abused wife. Even in spite of all her fame Winona Ryder's news anchor is just as lonely, and a disturbing restaurant scene with some heckling "fans" is so uncomfortable because Jordan drags it on, refusing to give us the big, easy payoff. But my favorite sub-plot was the Hawaiian vacation as Chris Isaak and his priceless facial expressions perfectly capture the pathetic desperation of a man so obsessed with clinging to his youth that he's wrecked his relationship with his own son.

Supposedly there's 40 extra minutes of cut footage floating around somewhere and I'm not sure whether it would help the film or not because at just over an hour and a half it feels just right the way it is. A sub-plot involving Brandon Routh as a vampire was excised, and despite part of me thinking this movie is so insane it could have possibly fit, that was a wise decision. Supernatural elements may have worked on the page, but given the tone of this film, there's simply no place for it (as if we didn't have enough vampires in pop culture already). But much more troubling is the fact that Ashley Olsen was originally considered to be cast in Amber Heard's role. Talk about dodging a bullet.

I can't understand how how anyone could say the actors in this film are "misused" or "underutilized" which seems to be the general consensus even though some are handed the craziest parts of their careers. Nor do I understand the complaints that the film is too bleak or lacks humor. If anything, critics and audiences, not the movie, are taking themselves too seriously. Much of the dark humor takes multiple viewings to fully absorb (three and counting for me, one with the commentary). Plus, how many movies out there actually hold up equally well as both comedy and drama? What I can understand is that Ellis is unhappy with how his work was translated to the screen. Not because I agree, but because every author is.

If The Informers has any problem it's that it should have been released 26 years earlier. Today, no one wants to see rich people with problems because it doesn't make us feel better. And we're definitely not used to a movie so willing to fully surrender itself to the era in which it's set. With The Informers, Gregor Jordan proves that great trash can be lifted to an art form. I'd have a tough time convincing anyone it's one of the best films of 2009, which is fine since it's actually the best film of 1983.

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