Sunday, September 20, 2009


Review: The Informant!
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The virtues of director Steven Soderbergh's “The Informant!” are plentiful and plainly recognizable: the script by Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) is almost dizzyingly intelligent; the cinematography by Soderbergh himself (under his usual alias, Peter Andrews) is alluring and elegantly moody; the original music by Marvin Hamlisch is gleeful and ebullient; and the acting, specifically from lead star Matt Damon, has a certain wry brilliance that never lets up. So why, then, did I emerge from this kooky dark-comedy-meets-paranoid-thriller feeling more than a little unsatisfied? The ingredients of greatness are certainly in place. But for all its strengths, “The Informant!” still leaves some things to be desired, not the least of which is even a mild release from its adamantly bone-dry tone.

Based on the 2000 non-fiction book of the same name (sans exclamation point) by investigative journalist Kurt Eichenwald (who served as one of the film's producers), “The Informant!” tells the “tattle tale” of Mark Whitacre (Damon), a successful executive at the multinational, Decatur, Illinois-based food conglomerate, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), who in the early '90s initiated a whistle-blowing campaign against his employers, aiming to expose their alleged price-fixing schemes. The real Whitacre is said to have been the highest-ranking corporate snitch in U.S. history. It was only after years of wire taps, secret meetings, video surveillance, and mountains of paperwork that FBI agents Brian Shepherd and Bob Herndon – who led the case and who are played here with great instincts by cunningly-cast TV favorites Scott Bakula (!) and Joel McHale (!!), respectively – discovered that Whitacre was a deranged, bipolar embezzler whose own crimes eclipsed those committed by ADM's higher-ups.

I'd be lying if I said I had no trouble keeping up with the movie during its first act, in which Damon's character, in a wild voiceover narration that continues throughout, breathlessly expounds the specifics of ADM and its operations. (His rants include, but are certainly not limited to, likening ADM's turning a profit to the digestion of corn, the company's hottest product.) The language is shrewdly complex, and I'd never condemn a script for sticking to its intricate guns, but the convoluted corporate jargon is merely the first way in which “The Informant!” keeps the viewer at arm's length. The narration lays the groundwork for what will transpire, and it definitely establishes the film's theme of comical duplicity, but there's an impenetrability to it that forbids us from fully plugging into the story.

What works wonderfully is Damon's performance, easily the best and most pronounced in a career filled with solid, impressive turns. Just as Whitacre is painted as a man who's as alarmingly delusional as he is articulate and astute (many of his scatterbrained speeches veer off into entertaining and wise sermons about the minutiae of everyday life), Damon's approach to the role seems both precisely rehearsed and madly improvised. He's funny, deceptively convincing, and he handles the challenging dialogue with a tireless, whirling dexterity that's thrilling to watch. We eventually find that we're never on solid ground with Whitacre, a sort of haphazard sociopath whose absurd behavior and uncertain motives go from laughable to intentionally infuriating, but we're always on board with Damon, if only for the joy of witnessing the great actor he's evolved into. (It helps that he packed on roughly 30 pounds and grew out a bush of a mustache, keeping the-boy-next-door, Sexiest-Man-Alive persona out of sight and out of mind.)

One may argue that the look of “The Informant!” clashes with its setting (what with the action taking place in the '90s and the film appearing to have crawled out of the '70s), but I was smitten with Soderbergh's design. His movie has an assured, laudable style, and he knows how to pique an audience's visual interest. The hazy lighting softly radiates white in the background, or, when necessary, drapes the characters in a sultry amber glow. The compositions are artful and eye-catching, and the camera movements are rhythmically, harmoniously fused with the events at hand. (Lest we forget, Soderbergh has, to great effect, photographed most of his own movies, including the exquisitely lensed “Traffic” and “The Good German.”)

What's lacking here is any shred of emotional catharsis. Watching “The Informant!,” I started to feel the slight sensation that I was being choked, not just by Whitacre's boundless lapses in judgment and imbecilic tendencies, but by the entire film's insistence on being so damned sardonic. Though chuckle-inducing at times, the sheer height of its relentless cynicism becomes taxing, and it kills any chance of genuine viewer attachment. Beyond Whitacre's paranoia and questionable self pity, the only true feelings ever presented are those of the FBI agents, who attempt to console Whitacre once it becomes clear that they can no longer remain in contact. But even their compassion is rooted in utter exhaustion, after having put up with Whitacre's mixed messages and volatile demeanor for what must have seemed like ages. (Even Whitacre's doting enabler of a wife, played by the dependably meek Melanie Lynskey, finally throws in the towel: “Why do you do this to yourself?” she pleads.) If we feel anything, it's their pain, coupled with a “D'oh!” and a palm-slap to the forehead.

Soderbergh seems fully aware of his movie's absence of humanity, as he's tried to enliven it from promotion to production: the goofy, lighthearted irony of the posters; the groovy, colorful intertitles; the boisterous, circus-like exuberance of the evocative music (think “Austin Powers” meets “Leave it to Beaver”). Fun as these finishing touches may be, they're only touches, and they can't save “The Informant!” from being a film that, however easy to like, is difficult to love.

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