Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Love: The Informant!

Steven Soderbergh is one of those directors who has somehow managed to balance his ratio of mainstream blockbusters with his art house efforts. He can make Ocean's 13 without breaking a sweat, then turn around and cash out the paycheck shooting the much lauded 2-parter Che. Or, in the same year he can release the sexually raw no-name Girlfriend Experience and follow it with the (in some ways equally risky) Matt Damon vehicle The Informant! You've got to admire that sort of reckless yet calculated drive to keep making cinema at all costs. Especially when your newest blockbuster (and yes, after coming in 2nd in the weekend box office, i think we can consider this a success) is a quiet, intricate, detail-oriented heist of a different, taupey color.
If you go into The Informant! looking for slapstick and Ocean's style deception, the likelihood is that you'll be disappointed. Forget the wide release, the poppy posters, and the ad campaign. The Informant! is comedic, to be sure, but not in the way you might expect. It's more cerebral giggles than thoughtless guffaws. Inspired by true events and based on the book of the same title, the story follows Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a biochemist who finds himself in the upper crust of lysine development company ADM. Confronted with a megalomaniac need to continue climbing the corporate ladder, Whitacre tells a small fiction that launches an FBI investigation. One lie begets another and another, and soon Whitacre is playing the part of informant and criminal, clumsily setting up and manipulating events in an attempt to cover his initial claim. While the actions themselves suggest a parodical procedural situation, the film is surprisingly invested in making this seem as thoroughly business as usual as possible.
This means that as Mark Whitacre conducts meetings and day to day activities, the gags are few and far between and the humor is subdued. So, if you're not in it for the character, you might be wont to shy away from the mode of storytelling. This is not an exciting movie. It's not high-energy or combustible. It's almost a docudrama. Yet, what it lacks in other departments, it makes up for in Matt Damon. Damon's Whitacre serves as our lens into the world of the film. His constant internal monologue of non-sequitors and thoughts are the only hints we get (through 75% of the movie) at what's really going on. Like a character from a story by Barthelme or George Saunders, Whitacre's corporate consciousness is misleading and underhandedly humorous. It's hard to imagine Whitacre as capable of effectively taking the trash out without distraction, let alone leading an FBI investigation.
Damon proves, once again, that he can act. He jabbers incessantly and plays his doltishly duplicitous character with a convincing air of latent Midwestern aggression. There's an escapist quality to the downhome, 1990's atmosphere enhanced by a patently absurd Marvin Hamlisch score that forces us to see Whitacre's little lies as his own personal battle against Dr. No. Damon gets both the character's own ego and the viewer's sense of Whitacre as a sort of addlepated schlep and mixes them together in a way that comes across as effortless. In his wake, the other actors could be almost anyone. Melanie Lynskey functions well as Whitacre's loyal milktoast wife. Scott Bakula is suitably bland as Whitacre's FBI contact. And if you've been eagerly awaiting a shift to high-profile on the part of Soup host Joel McHale, this is a good start, but not a breakout performance.
Overall, I can't say that I enjoyed The Informant! as much as I wanted to. Yet, I appreciated it in a way i found surprising. The film welcomes an age of unexpected early 90's nostalgia and will undoubtedly be cause for several Matt Damon nominations come award season. Keep in mind, however, it's that kind of movie. Just because it showed up at your local multiplex doesn't mean it isn't the type that usually spends weeks slowly building up steam in limited release. I'd recommend a listen to the This American Life episode that got Soderbergh's attention several years back before you jump in unawares.

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