23 April 2009

At the movies: The Informers.

It would be impossible to do a literal adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, and no one has been able to do so just yet. Of them all, Roger Avary's take on The Rules of Attraction came closest to capturing the tabula rasa grand opera of Ellis' milieu, but even it had to scale back as far as the drugs/sex/decadence quotient.

Those three elements have come to define the literary and cinematic Ellis, and to that body of work we can now add The Informers, sprung from Ellis' 1994 collection of short stories, and the first instance of the author working on the screenplay for one of those adaptations. There's an attempt here to craft a coked-out Short Cuts, aiming for that distinctively Altmanesque sprawl that nonetheless coheres into something greater than the sum of its parts. The Informers, the film, is a frustrating effort.

It has that quintessential Ellis fixation on surfaces, with beautiful skin sliding through life greased by power and payment, and it captures that nameless sexual demiurge that privilege fuels, with participants slipping in and out of whatever bed is nearby in a gender-irrelevant pile. But lurking beneath its surfaces is an all-consuming sadness, a pervasive sense of wanting to be needed and valued in human terms, and only some of the film's cast are capable of making that aspect feel real, rather than something demanded by the screenplay.

Amber Heard, still best known as adjunct girlfriend in Pineapple Express and Never Back Down (and whose remarkable titular role in All The Boys Love Mandy Lane still remains unreleased in the U.S.), presides over the proceedings as Christie. She is desired by most of the cast, few of whom even register, and she unleashes some of the most commanding nudity since Sharon Stone's turn in the first Basic Instinct. Remarkably, Heard never seems exploited, delighting in the power of her flesh with an earthy, Anna Magnani vibe. She drives the film in a way that none of the rest of the cast can, and she gets the tone of Ellis' stories exactly right.

Similarly, Mickey Rourke continues his career resurrection with a disturbing turn as someone slipping around the lowest rungs of the Los Angeles ladder. A kidnapper of dubious reliability and razor-sharp intensity, Rourke's Peter is a character that understands exactly where he stands in the social hierarchy of 1983 L.A., and his performance, like Heard's, is spot-on.

The Informers is notable for being actor Brad Renfro's final role, and it's difficult to watch his work in the film without being aware of that fact; his character is a twitchy mess of a man put into an untenable situation who does, however, have one scene of explosive power, where he talks about the business of Hollywood, and you don't know what comes from the script and what's coming from the heart, but it burns brighter than most of the film that contains it.

In a way, Billy Bob Thornton seems to be working through some heavy issues himself- his part is quiet, a studio executive torn between a longtime affair and reconstituting his marriage and fragmented family, but there's a steely sadness to his work here that resonates long after his time onscreen is past.

But that's the central problem of The Informers- the vast majority of the cast can't bring that pain through, and a lot of the film just lies there and looks pretty. Kim Basinger and Winona Ryder both bring a nervy exhaustion to their roles, and we feel how the lives of their characters (and, to a certain extent, their public personae) are driven by endless obligations, but they aren't able to overcome the weaknesses of the material.

As for the film's seemingly endless array of blond boys with indiscriminate libidos and indeterminate ideologies, they just don't do anything to differentiate themselves. Some are sad, some run a mysterious ring of child-killers, some are numb by the lives and lies their families gave them, and none of them affect the proceedings all that much. There's a 'lonely rock star' subplot that could have been completely jettisoned and it would have made no difference whatsoever.

Anybody with a jones for 80s-era decadence can find some enjoyable moments within. It's hard not to love a film that unfolds its moral agenda to Simple Minds' "New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)" or that positions Pat Benetar's "Shadows of the Night" as the pop music equivalent of the Voight-Kampff test from Blade Runner, just as it's hard not to hate a film with this much bad hair or sloppy AIDS allegory. You probably already know whether or not you want to see this film, so the only purpose I serve is to make sure you've got your expectations properly set. Better than Less Than Zero, but without a performance like Robert Downey Jr.'s. Less of an agenda than American Psycho, but nowhere near as subversive or brilliant in its musical choices. Doesn't compare to The Rules of Attraction, but few films do.

But in our pharmacotized culture, when the cult of 80s-style awesomeness again rules the masses (and don't kid yourself, Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" is the epitome of the phenomenon), with uncertain futures and a sense that the rich really are a separate species (rent Brian Yuzna's masterpiece Society for further elaboration), there's a place for Ellis and his oeuvre. The distance between the Now and the Then seems even more diminished, and sometimes you just want to feel less.

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