Sunday, September 27, 2009

An "Informant" Walks Into an Office Building...


directed by Steven Soderbergh
starring Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, a whole bunch of random vaguely familiar actors

As a film, “The Informant!” is an odd bird. It’s also an oddly enjoyable one, despite—or perhaps because of—the offset between its breezy comic tone and an ever-present sense that something is wildly off-kilter. In fact, that tension is what lingers in the memory, long after the details of the plot fade away.

At first glance, the real-life story behind the film hardly seems like the stuff of comedy: A high-level executive of an agribusiness megacorporation voluntarily goes undercover for the FBI to collect evidence of a massive price-fixing conspiracy, only to reveal, over the course of the investigation, that neither he nor his motives are what they seem. This sounds like the premise for a thriller or, at the least, a serious psychological drama. Or it would to most people. But then, director Steven Soderbergh isn’t most people.

I have to admit I’ve never been able to form an entirely cohesive opinion of Soderbergh’s work. Though he’s made movies that I’ve loved (“Ocean’s Eleven,” the underrated “Solaris”) and admired (“Traffic,” “Out of Sight”), and none that I’ve seen and hated, there’s a polished smoothness, almost glibness, to his style that tends to make even his best, most probing films feel a little slick, a little lightweight, or at least not as consequential as one feels he intended them to be. This, together with the level of commercial success he’s achieved with his mainstream features, has also tended to obscure the genuine experimentalism he usually indulges in smaller, lower-profile, lower-budget ventures wedged between installments of the “Ocean’s” franchise.

In some sense, then, it isn’t, or shouldn’t be, particularly surprising that this taste for experimentation shaped Soderbergh’s approach to “The Informant!” Aided by screenwriter Scott Burns, he’s turned the strange-but-true tale recounted in Kurt Eichenwald’s book of the same name (sans exclamation point) into a goofy upending, bordering on parody, of the standard whistleblower narrative. Right from the get-go, we’re confronted with the astounding spectacle of the would be-hero, Mark Whitacre (a superb Matt Damon, who deserves an Oscar nomination, though he probably won’t get one), with his well-fed, self-satisfied, slightly fatuous look, his ridiculous toupee, and his even more ridiculous interior monologue that runs ceaselessly from one non sequitur to the next—from the chlorine in swimming pools to how polar bears know to camouflage themselves. He may have a biochemistry degree from Cornell, but it’s almost impossible to take this guy seriously. The joke, of course, is that he’s a man whom quite a lot of people take seriously, from his colleagues at Archer Daniels Midland (one of those giant corporations that processes the unpronounceable ingredients in packaged foods) to his anxiously affectionate wife (Melanie Lynsky of “Heavenly Creatures”), to his harried FBI handlers (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale, playing it straight and surprisingly sympathetic), who develop an amusingly protective relationship with their charge. (Other comedians pop up in small, mostly straight-man roles—presumably that’s part of the joke, too.) And as the government discovers, all at once but much too slowly, just how much of a loose cannon their inside man is, their panicked consternation is both believable and hilarious.

Soderbergh punches up the drollery through some idiosyncratic stylistic touches: even though the Whitacre/ADM story took place principally in the mid-’90s, the film has the look, feel, lighting, and even the musical score of something from a cheesy-but-durable ’70s TV show. Ultimately, though, the best and funniest thing about “The Informant!” is Damon, who delivers one of the slyest, deftest, and most remarkable performances of the year, and perhaps of his career, as the slippery, confounding Whitacre. From his cheerful, inflection-free voice-over to the contrast between his vacuously genial, ingenuous face and the hard, bright glint in his eye, he conveys the distinct and disconcerting impression of someone who might equally likely be a diabolical mastermind or just flat-out crazy. Layer after layer of deception peels away, eventually revealing clues to what Whitacre’s up to and why, he becomes a strangely tragic or pathetic figure, depending on your point of view, even as his claims become more and more outrageous.

Anchored by Damon’s (anti)star turn, “The Informant!” is the kind of movie that makes you laugh while it’s going on but leaves you thinking afterwards. Whether it’s an indictment of Whitacre, ADM, agribusiness, the Department of Justice, the kind of society that made Whitacre’s rise and fall possible, or all or none of these things, is left for the viewer to decide. Overall, however, it comes off less as a specifically targeted satire than as a broader commentary on human folly, greed, and capacity for self-deception—for which Mark Whitacre happened to be an especially flamboyant, and fragile, vessel.

Ah, Whitacre! Ah, humanity!



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