Thursday, September 17, 2009

Film review: Odd 'Informant!' relies on Damon's star turn

Matt Damon in The Informant!

By Hap Erstein

Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh is like a box of chocolates. You’re never sure what you are going to get. His recent releases -- the epic political biography Che and the low-budget independent art film on the world of call girls, The Girlfriend Experience -- have virtually nothing in common with his newest film, The Informant!, a jaunty comedy about a real-life corporate whistle-blower starring his Ocean’s Eleven (and …Twelve and …Thirteen) cast member, Matt Damon.

With its opening titles that wink at us while declaring the movie’s fidelity to fact and the sitcom-like bounce of the Marvin Hamlisch musical soundtrack, The Informant! all but insists that it is nothing to be taken seriously. Although its plot is not too far off from Soderbergh’s earlier, earnest Erin Brockovich, the breezy tone of The Informant! is far more reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s fable of lighthearted larceny, Catch Me If You Can.

Instead of an impostor, it concerns a duplicitous biochemist for Archer Daniels Midland, the agribusiness conglomerate that specializes in corn syrup derivatives, food additives and price-fixing. As Mark Whitacre, the longtime executive who goes undercover to gain evidence against the company for the FBI, Damon is blithely nerdy. Having added 30 pounds, a fake-looking mustache and a cheesy hairpiece, he brings the suave James Bond to no one’s mind except his own.

When Whitacre agrees to become a double agent for the feds, strapping on a wire to obtain the aural evidence of collusion, he is suddenly excited by the idea of becoming a government hero and do-gooder. In addition, he is so far out of touch with reality he sees himself succeeding to the top ranks of the company once his corrupt superiors are hauled off to jail.

The only problem is Whitacre is not that bright, and he blunders his way through many an electronic eavesdropping situation that he bungles. Or maybe he is far smarter than any observer would ever give him credit for, because we eventually learn that he has been siphoning off millions of dollars along the way.

The book that all of this is based upon is deadly serious in tone, but Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns have turned it into a goofy comedy. The voiceover narration by the Whitacre character is laced with nutty irony and the mere fact that all of this could have actually happened becomes a darkly wry statement of how screwed up the corporate landscape -- and the federal justice system -- really are.

Standouts in the cast are Scott Bakula as Whitacre’s increasingly incredulous FBI contact and Melanie Lynskey as his puzzled, but loyal wife. Still, the crucial performance that makes the whole movie work as well as it does comes from Damon. Though he fancies himself an Ian Fleming secret agent, his lumbering gait and one-beat-too-slow verbal delivery puts the lie to that image. He makes us identify with him, picturing ourselves in such a quandary and rooting for his unlikely extrication from the enveloping net around him.

All of these filmmaking choices are risky, and the movie has its share of misfires and miscalculations. But we have seen the straight dramatic version of stories along these lines, so another would likely be redundant. The Informant! is an odd, often unbalanced, minor film, but brash and surprisingly entertaining.

THE INFORMANT! Studio: Warner Bros.; Director: Steven Soderbergh; Starring: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Melanie Lynskey. Rated: R. Opens: Friday, at most commercial venues


Chris R said...

Steven Soderbergh is a fantastic film maker. He has done it all. So has Matt Damon for that matter. I am really looking forward to this movie.

constant gina said...

Matt Damon is a genius playing this role...