Bret Easton Ellis specializes in depicting rich, vacuous people living lives of soulless decadence, so it’s hardly a shock that Gregor Jordan’s adaptation of this novel—like “Less Than Zero” set amongst the angst-ridden, drug-addled glitterati of eighties California—is, like the characters, beautiful to look at but emotionally dead. “The Informers” opens with a well-healed young stud run down by a speeding car and bleeding to death on the pavement; but the emphasis isn’t on his suffering, it’s rather on the lack of grief among his pack of callow, self-absorbed acquaintances.
There’s lots more pain and unhappiness as the interlaced vignettes that make up what passes for a plot go on, but you’re likely to be equally unmoved—even if you’re not callow and self-absorbed. Because it’s utterly impossible to feel any human connection with people as shallow and emotionally stunted as the ones depicted here. And though that’s the idea, it doesn’t make the picture any less irritating, even if you have to admit that it accomplishes what it sets out to do—to offer a cinematic mosaic of a society that, despite its outward show of glamour, is like one of the circles of Dante’s hell.
The central figure—or at least the one we meet earliest—is Graham Sloan (Jon Foster), an Adonis-like college student who’s also a drug dealer. He’s one of the pals of Bruce (Fernando Consagra), the guy run down and killed in the opening scene. He’s also the boyfriend of Christie (Amber Heard), a gorgeous blonde with whom he shares both drugs and Martin (Austin Nichols). Graham’s also the son of Hollywood producer William (Billy Bob Thornton), a sleazy guy who’s arranging a reconciliation with his troubled wife Laura (Kim Basinger) while also continuing his affair with television news reporter Cheryl Moore (Winona Ryder). And in William’s absence from their home Laura’s been bedding the apparently ubiquitous Martin.
Martin’s also involved with the titular British band headed by surly, drug-addled lead singer Bryan Metro (Mel Raido), whose agent Roger (Rhys Ifans) is negotiating with William’s studio for the group to star in what sounds like a grotesque outer-space musical. In this case, Martin’s directing a video for the band that’s opening The Informants’ California gig. And Christie’s connected to Metro by crashing when she falls ill with the singer’s ex-wife.
Meanwhile, Tim Price (Lou Taylor Pucci), one of Graham’s crew, is forced to go off on a Hawaiian vacation with his estranged father Les (Chris Isaak), a nasty jerk who suspects his son is gay but, when the kid meets a girl (Jessica Stroup) on the beach, comes on to her himself.
Finally, in a plot thread less directly connected to the above, put-upon hotel clerk Jack (the late Brad Renfro) gets an unwelcome visitor in his sinister Uncle Peter (Mickey Rourke), who barges into his nephew’s modest house with a plan to randomly abduct a young boy and sell him to pedophiles. Jack’s hotel happens to be the place where Graham, Christie and Martin keep a room.
If all this isn’t clear, suffice it to say that it won’t really matter, because it’s impossible to care what will happen to any of these characters, except the kidnapped kid that Jack frets over in the shadow of the brutish Peter. Even when one of the others is apparently dying at the close, it’s presented more as a desiccated tableau than a moving moment. Of course, you’re really not supposed to care about them: you’re just meant to be aghast at their self-centeredness, ennui and casual cruelty. Most of the cast perform well below their potential. Thornton is like Nosferatu reborn, and Foster comes across rather like an animated Calvin Klein ad. Rourke seems to be doing self-parody, Isaak contents himself with smirks and grimaces, and Raido is zombiefied. More animated are the females, Basinger and Ryder, who at least show some honest emotion—as well as Renfro, who, in what’s probably his final role, looks like a portly caricature of his former self but, while he may overplay, at least brings some energy to his role.
If it’s difficult to engage emotionally with “The Informers,” one can at least appreciate the glossy, almost numbingly seductive appearance that production designer Cecilia Montiel, art directors Ines Olmedo and Nick Ralbovsky and costumer Sophie De Rakoff fashioned for the picture, and the languidly precise approach that Jordan and cinematographer bring to the material. The result is like flipping through a lush but vapid period fashion magazine—all to the accompaniment of a score studded with eighties pop songs.
In spite of the title, “The Informers” doesn’t get below the surface of the era of Reaganesque excess to tell us anything new. But it’s way cool to look at.