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THE INFORMANT! (2009) *** movie review by COOP

Posted on September 25th, 2009
Posted on September 25th, 2009


I didn’t laugh until about 40 minutes into this artsy, awkwardly-styled independent film.  There, if that didn’t scare you off, then you might enjoy this light and quirky story by Steven Soderbergh.  You won’t be rolling in the aisles, but if you can wait for the tension to build, the laughs will come.  It’s too bad Soderbergh couldn’t kick the humor off to an early start because a less patient audience would either fall asleep or walk out. 

More of a comedic character study than a flat-out comedy, “The Informant!” tells the (sort of) true story of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a compulsive liar who singlehandedly took down a major corporation, embarrassed the FBI/his lawyers and embezzled millions in the 1990’s.  After drawing the attention of the Feds while trying to extort 10 million from his company ADM, Whitacre dodges a bullet by informing FBI investigator Brian Shepherd (Scott Bakula) that he can prove his company’s involvement in illegal price-fixing.  Whitacre offers to wear a wire and narc on his own colleagues, but as the investigation deepens, Whitacre’s actions become increasingly bizarre.  He fancies himself a secret agent and exasperates the FBI and Department of Justice with his erratic behavior and wild stories.  Soon Whitacre’s world begins to crumble as the stakes become higher and his lies get out of hand.

One thing that had me scratching my head early on was Whitacre’s constant narration which, at first, had no bearing on the immediate story.  He rattles off random factoids, stories and opinions.  While at first distracting, the reason for these sometimes amusing/annoying interjections eventually becomes clear.  They are all lies.  Once this realization suddenly sets in, the narration becomes relevant and story becomes far more interesting, and yes… funny.  Once the audience is let in on the joke, it’s hard not to giggle as Whitacre tells another outrageous and intricate whopper to cover up for a previous one. 

The reality behind it all really makes the film interesting to watch.  This guy managed to influence every life in the United States by destroying a company that has a hand in producing the very food we eat.  Chances are you have several ADM (under new management) products in your pantry or fridge right now.  How did Whitacre get away with so much mayhem?  Because he had a high I.Q. and was successful at his job.  No one had any reason to doubt him.  He didn’t even have a motive.  Due to his bipolar personality disorder and personality flaws, he simply could not stop lying.  If you’ve ever known anyone with this problem, you understand the heartbreak and damage it can cause.  Put somebody like that in a position of power and you’ve got a real mess on your hands.  Doesn’t sound like a comedy, but the ridiculous situations that arise from Whitacre’s misdeeds are so over the top, you can’t help but chuckle.  Even by the end, it’s impossible to tell the truth from Whitacre’s fiction.

Soderbergh rounds up some reliable character actors to support Damon.  Clancy Brown, Melanie Lynskey, Joel McHale, the Smothers Brothers… all play their parts with exasperated patience and reliable skill.  The often miscast Scott Bakula seems to have found his niche as the gullible and clueless Agent Shepherd.  His reactions to Whitacre’s manic claims provide the biggest laughs, especially when we figure out what’s going on long before he does. 

I have a feeling once Oscars seasons starts rolling around, Matt Damon might get a moderate amount of buzz for this role…  not because he deserves it but because of weak competition for Best Male Lead so far this year.  Studios usually launch the powerhouse performances in November and December, but the pickings look slim.  I thought Damon delivered one of the better performances of his career, but let’s face it Mark Whitacre isn’t likable.  He’s a smarmy little jerk and I doubt anyone would give the performance much thought against a more serious, dramatic role. 

Soderbergh has gained a well-deserved reputation as a model independent director.  When he debuted with “Sex, Lies and Videotape” back in 1989, critics predicted a bright future for him.  While many of his indie films have been hit or miss (“The Limey” is a personal favorite of mine), he effortlessly and frequently crosses over to direct major Hollywood releases, (“Traffic” and fluff like “Oceans 11,12 and 13”).  I’m not sure whether I prefer his Hollywood or indie films but I can’t deny his genius as a director.  Maybe one day he’ll choose some story ideas that I can really get behind. 

3 out of 5 stars

-Coop

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