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The Ugly 80s

Bret Easton Ellis's The Informers is all the more repulsive in 2009.



the informers s Directed by gregor jordan written by bret easton ellis and nicholas jarecki

You might recall that after the terror attacks of September 2001, Ben Stiller decided to digitally erase the Twin Towers from a skyline shot in his upcoming comedy Zoolander because he thought the sight of them would upset people. Following the economic collapse of September 2008, the people who made The Informers might have been wise to digitally erase most of the characters. Rich, spoiled, and hedonistic, they flaunt their wealth and use each other without remorse as they bounce around the upper tiers of the entertainment business in Reagan-era Hollywood. They seem like aliens from another planet, their world an endless carnival of drugs, booze, money, sex, and easy cruelty. You have to wonder what goes through producer's head as he's preparing to drop a glistening turd like this on a public facing the highest unemployment rates in 25 years. Perhaps someone thought people would find it escapist; I wanted to escape from it.

The Informers is adapted from a 1994 story collection by Bret Easton Ellis, whose three fin-de-siecle novels about the go-go 80s—Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, and American Psycho—have all been turned into profitable movies. Ellis wrote most of the stories while he was an undergraduate at Bennington College in Vermont, and they share enough characters that he was able to number the stories and pass them off as a narrative of sorts. In a fine example of form following narcissistic function, every story opens abruptly in first person, and you have to spend a page or two in the narrator's head before you can figure out who he is. The writing is terse and minimalistic and instead of dependent clauses and punctuation there are lots of conjunctions and the subject is usually some young, tan, bleach-blond teen hanging with his soulless friends by the pool and they're smoking pot and maybe doing some blow and there's some girl sunbathing topless and the teen stares at the blue water and someone says something about getting tickets for Oingo Boingo and the end of the world is nigh.

In adapting The Informers, Ellis and screenwriting partner Nicholas Jarecki envisioned a sprawling, two-and-a-half-hour tale along the lines of Boogie Nights—and Ellis has publicly distanced himself from Gregor Jordan's movie, which runs 98 minutes. Some of the more tangential stories have been dropped, and the writers have done their best to integrate two others: "The Fifth Wheel," about two lowlifes holding a kidnapped child, and "Discovering Japan," about a decadent British rock star who batters his groupies. But the main plotline focuses on a callous movie producer named William Sloane (Billy Bob Thornton), his emotionally bruised wife and kids, and his teenage son's terminally jaded friends. Sloane has left his aging, pilled-up wife (Kim Basinger) for a ravishing local newscaster (Winona Ryder), then returned to his broken family after getting dumped. His son, Graham (Jon Foster), is so disgusted by his parents that he spends all his time with his best pal, Martin (Austin Nichols), who repays his friendship by banging not only Graham's girlfriend but his mom.

The pall of exploitation hanging over the movie is only exacerbated by the casting: like the soundtrack tunes by Devo, Gary Numan, Wang Chung, Men Without Hats, and A Flock of Seagulls, the actors seem to have been chosen mainly for their 80s cash-in value. Chris Isaak is terrible as a glib businessman who drags his teenage son (one of Graham's buddies) off for a Hawaiian vacation and tries to use him as a wingman. Mickey Rourke plays one of the aforementioned kidnappers, and after his endearing performance in The Wrestler, it's a drag to see him typecast again as a heartless scuzzball. Basinger (who costarred with Rourke in the steamy, laughable 9∏ Weeks back in 1986) is saddled with a role that capitalizes on her tabloid reputation as being a few cards short of a deck. And Ryder, who's never recovered professionally from her 2002 shoplifting conviction, plays a posh celebrity dressed to the nines. After a while you begin to wonder whether you're watching performers or just bugs trapped in the amber of their own bad publicity.

Fans of Ellis's fiction call him a moralist and a satirist, though most of the satire in The Informers consists of showbiz gags well past their expiration date. We first glimpse rock star Bryan Metro (Mel Raido) staring at the LA skyline from the window of his private plane and asking his long-suffering manager (Rhys Ifans) what city it is. After a wild night, the camera looks down on Bryan as he wakes, pulls back to reveal a naked teenage girl sleeping beside him, then pulls back again to reveal a naked teenage boy on the other side. Back in movieland, William Sloane is trying to decide whether to green-light a picture in which Metro will be kidnapped by aliens and forced to play a concert for their emperor, who looks like a giant tomato. Another of his productions (mentioned to his daughter as he tries to connect with her over dinner at a swank restaurant) is a comedy about a 12-year-old who becomes president of the United States. It's a spot-on example of what the big studios might have been betting on circa 1983, but the shroud of ill will draped over the movie stifles any laughs.

As far as moralism goes, the movie adds to Ellis's stories a streak of puritan retribution in the form of the AIDS lesions that begin to creep up the long, slender legs of Graham's promiscuous girlfriend, Christie (Amber Heard). It also inserts one notable act of humanity. After the reptilian Peter (Rourke) rolls into LA from the desert (accompanied by his new friend, a drugged-out 14-year-old girl), he crashes at the cheap apartment of his younger brother, Jack (Brad Renfro), a wannabe actor. Before long Peter has kidnapped a ten-year-old boy and tied him up in the bathtub, hoping to sell him to some people he knows for $6,000. The deal goes bad, and the brothers have to flee. In the book, Jack goes into the bathroom and haltingly stabs the boy to death: "I finally grab his hair and pull his head back with it and he's crying, still arching his back up, trying to twist free, bleeding all over the tub from shallow wounds, and Mary is screaming in the living room and I ram the knife deep into his throat, hacking it open, and his eyes go wide with realization and a huge geyser of hot blood hits me in the face." And so on.

But in the movie Jack has been given a shot of decency, and unbeknownst to his wicked brother he cuts the boy loose. In a movie mostly devoid of sympathy, Renfro gives a highly sympathetic performance as the fat, cowering loser, made even more affecting by the fact that, about a month after shooting wrapped, the actor died of a heroin overdose at age 25. Raised by his grandmother in Knoxville, Tennessee, and discovered by a casting director at age ten, Renfro made his movie debut in The Client (1994) and appeared in another 20-some films before his addiction got the better of him. An end credit for The Informers announces that it's "dedicated to the memory of Brad Renfro." Given the movie that's just unfolded, the gesture feels like an air-kiss.v

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