REVIEW: The Informant!

8 10 2009

You’ve seen plenty of movies about corporate scandals, a few about whistleblowers, and maybe some about informants. But you have never seen one like “The Informant!” The pervasive quirks of director Steven Soderbergh’s latest outing spread all the way to its exclamation point-laden title. Even if it doesn’t make you bust a gut, something in the movie is bound to make you grin from ear to ear, be it Matt Damon’s zany performance or Marvin Hamlisch’s retro score teeming with horns and whistles. Much to my surprise, the movie succeeds not because of Damon’s adept acting skills but rather because of Soderbergh’s expert handling of the eccentric script. His willingness to delve into the depths of the mind of Mark Whitacre (Damon) is nothing short of sensational.

“The Informant!” dares to explore Whitacre, a high-ranking executive at Archer Daniels Midland.  While the company is under close scrutiny by the FBI, Whitacre tips off them to a completely unexpected goldmine – ADM is part of one of the biggest price fixing scheme in history.  He reveals this not out of some sense of moral rectitude but rather due to the coerciveness of his concerned wife.  The FBI instantly puts Whitacre to use, placing him undercover in the heat of the fire.  Under conditions that agents are trained for years to cope with, the FBI’s most improbable informant manages to collect hundreds of hours of evidence relating to the criminal activity.  While on the surface everything looked perfect, the stress was inflaming a certain affliction of Whitacre.  Despite his bumbling demeanor, he is a very cunning man who may be not just a great informant but a informed threat the FBI.

Soderbergh, ever the versatile filmmaker, takes a fairly conventional tale of corporate crime and satirizes the genre.  He makes “The Informant!” not the story of Archer Daniels Midland but rather the story of Mark Whitacre.  Soderbergh executes this vision with precision and panache, getting down to the core of Whitacre himself.  The movie is told through Whitacre’s eyes, and the stylistic elements match how he saw the events occurring.  He sees himself as equivalent to a James Bond-like ’60s era spy; Hamlisch’s offbeat score and the zany editing are just a few of the many ways Soderbergh gives us insight into Whitacre’s mind.  I cannot hammer it in hard enough what a masterstroke this movie is for Soderbergh.  He has given us not only a smart sendup of big business but also a complex portrait of a labyrinthine man.

But the remarkable look at Mark Whitacre is not solely the creation of Steven Soderbergh.  Credit is also due to Matt Damon for getting into the subtle nuances of the character.  There has been plenty of speculation about his Oscar prospects, and the talk is well-deserved. (Heads up, I am leaving reviewer mode and entering Oscar pundit mode.) His name may be enough to squeeze him into the tight Best Actor field, but I doubt that he can win.  The movie isn’t a flashy performance piece for Damon, and that will no doubt work against him.  The movie and character may also be a little too quirky for the Academy as well.  (Back to reviewer mode now.) The more I have thought about Damon’s work, the more I have grown to appreciate its subtle brilliance.  As a self-proclaimed writer, I also attribute the success of the character to screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who scripted some outrageous interior monologues for Whitacre which often overlapped with the actual dialogue.  It’s mind-boggling to think that this came from the man who wrote the polar opposite “The Bourne Ultimatum.”

I hate to once again lament about the state of Hollywood, but it brings me no joy to announce that a thought-provoking movie like “The Informant!” is such a rarity.  The more I think about it, the more I appreciate it.  Soderbergh’s caper does not yield to the unfortunately accepted norm of instant gratification, instead creating a deliberate character study that only gains luster with time.  B+ / 3stars

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