Is it time yet to declare a moratorium on the tradition of American filmmakers presenting loosely woven vignettes as full-length features? Just for a little while? There’s no denying some highlights here and there. Robert Altman’s Nashville, for one—or even P.T. Anderson’s Nashville-jocking Magnolia—show us what wonders can be worked with artistic presence of mind and a fine ensemble cast. But there are also misfires like Paul Haggis’ Crash, which wore its petty contrivances right alongside its heart on its oversized sleeve. The technique is losing its novelty, even if audiences and Academy voters alike still have the tendency to confuse excess with profundity.
It’s not the excess that’s necessarily the problem. Controversial Californian novelist Bret Easton Ellis is surely no stranger to it, having built a body of work around transgressive satire of greedy, narcissistic ’80s America. But however fruitful chaotic hedonism may be for Ellis’ stories, overdoing the storytelling is no substitute for depth, and it’s hard to shake that notion during Gregor Jordan’s slovenly adaptation of Ellis’ 1994 short-story collection The Informers. Jordan—with help, it should be noted, by producer/co-scripter Ellis himself—mistakes the presence of occasionally recurring characters for a grand narrative scheme, and the seams end up far too obvious.
The Informers boils Ellis’ 13 stories into five mushy threads. There’s junkie rock star Bryan Metro (Mel Raido), in Los Angeles for a gig and some meetings; movie producer William and his wife Laura (Billy Bob Thornton and Kim Basinger), giving their doomed marriage a feeble final go; two men (Mickey Rourke and the late Brad Renfro) at odds over a kidnapping; an estranged father and son (Chris Isaak and Lou Taylor Pucci) on vacation in Hawaii; and three young lovers (Jon Foster, Austin Nichols, and Amber Heard) trying to reconcile their arrangement once love enters the picture.
The strength of the bonds between the tales varies. If there is a protagonist, it’s the confused, lovestruck Graham (Foster), son of William and Laura and a nominal link to the other stories. (He’s also the most fully formed, if not necessarily sympathetic, character.) For the most part, though, Jordan neglects the narrative mechanics implicit in his juggling act, approaching The Informers in the manner of a brainless take on Altman’s 1993 Raymond Carver mash-up Short Cuts, taking it on faith that the thing would work as a whole with limited dot-connecting.
But Ellis is no Raymond Carver, and Jordan is no Altman. There’s plenty proof that Ellis’ work translates well to the screen. The adaptation of his debut Less Than Zero moralized the book’s drug use and bowdlerized its sexuality, but Mary Harron’s pitch-perfect take on American Psycho streamlined an unwieldy, unsettling novel into a disturbingly accessible cult classic, and Roger Avary’s underappreciated Rules of Attraction manages to tell a number of stories at once without losing Ellis’ themes, or our attention.
But there is not even pretense that the collection on which The Informers is based is intended as a single work, and Ellis should know this as well as anyone. Most of the stories, in fact, date back further than Less Than Zero and don’t really even crackle on their own terms. Put forward as a whole, then, The Informers seems lost in a daze, fully intending to captivate and make its points but totally forgetting to follow through with either. Jordan’s coolly naturalistic style is miles away from Harron’s icy formalism and Avary’s spazzy slither, but it’s also detached from its own story, and as such there are precious few moments that really fall into sync; the sadness behind shallow youthful lust comes across well, but that’s only one of what should be the film’s many moods.
The ensemble, unfortunately, doesn’t help. Both Thornton and Basinger’s best work is probably behind them, and none of the young leads go out of their way to make an impression. This mostly leaves Renfro—who, in his final role, reminds us that “uneven” also means “occasionally strong”—and Rourke, who continues to earn his comeback. Sadly, the character sketch their characters inhabit is also the film’s slightest and most disjointed.
Ellis has fumed that Gregor Jordan ended up discarding whole sections of the original screenplay, including all reference to the supernatural aspects of certain stories. It’s important to ponder, though, whether the film would be any better at an hour longer, and with vampires? (The stock answer to this question is yes. Don’t feel bad if your reflexes got the better of you.)
Or would it be an even worse cautionary self-adaptation tale than it already is?