Movie Review: The Informant! (9/19/09)

Movie Poster: The Informant!

The Informant!

Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Scott Z. Burns (screenplay), Kurt Eichenwald (book)

Mark Whitacre – Matt Damon
FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard – Scott Bakula
FBI Special Agent Bob Herndon – Joel McHale
Ginger Whitacre – Melanie Lynskey
Terry Wilson – Rick Overton

CLR Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Still: The Informant!

[Photo by Claudette Barius]

The Humorous Tale of a Corporate Whistleblower

Watching Mark Whitacre, an employee of Archer Daniels Midland, a heart-of-the-Midwest agricultural company, dig his own grave shouldn’t be funny—but oh, it is. Steven Soderbergh’s latest is a foray into white-color crime, price-fixing, and embezzlement. In The Informant!, Matt Damon plays an agricultural magnate who fancies himself a “white hat” in the midst of “black hats.” In theory there should be nothing entertaining about watching an FBI case unfold that deals with potential poisoning of the general American public, price-fixing on lysine and High Fructose Corn Syrup, and a compulsive liar. Fortunately, Soderbergh is one of those filmmakers who can take the soberest of material and make it comedic.

The Informant! is based on a true story, but in the opening credits a disclaimer appears on the screen. Though the gist of the story is true, some characters and scenes are fictionalized. “So there,” it ends, establishing the flippant tone as early as the first minute. In Soderbergh’s experienced hands, a story set in the 1990s becomes a true period piece. The set design, lighting, and costuming are spot-on, from Matt Damon’s hideous gold-rimmed eyeglasses to his wife Ginger’s (Melanie Lynskey) perfectly moussed 1992 coif. Plaid, gold, dark wood-paneling, and fluorescents go the extra distance to tell an older audience exactly the time period in which the film takes place. The cars are angular Dodges and Fords (this is, after all, Decatur, Illinois, land of cornfields and Republicans). There’s no recession in Whitacre’s world; eight cars decorate his garage, a new stable leaps up across the street, and trips to Europe and Hawaii abound.

Perhaps the most ingenious part of Whitacre’s affect (and the film) is his stream-of-consciousness inner monologue. He wonders about tie patterns, spews factoids about polar bears, and wrestles with the German language as he bumbles deeper into an FBI investigation he instigated. Whitacre is the ultimate unreliable narrator—someone whose world is entirely in his head, and whose actions are simply inconsequential. Marvin Hamlisch’s jazzy score backs the film with an added element of unreality; in many scenes, Soderbergh chose to emphasize the 1970s-style music and ignore the dialogue—these people are just talking heads to Whitacre, and the audience starts to understand who they’re dealing with as banjo music and internal monologue play over the FBI agents’ debriefing.

Matt Damon gained thirty pounds for this role, and as Soderbergh says, he “embodies a wonderful kind of boyish charm and optimism” that allows him to pull off even the most dastardly of deeds and still come out looking slightly rosy. Damon’s physique and mannerisms are completely different from those of Jason Bourne or Will Hunting—or, really, from any other role he’s done. When he becomes Whitacre, he just isn’t Matt Damon. The supporting cast is brilliant; Scott Bakula, most famous for the 1980s TV hit “Quantum Leap,” plays an FBI agent whose intentions are good but whose personal polygraph can’t detect just what kind of a liar he’s dealing with. Joel McHale, whose previous credits also skew toward the television end of the spectrum (he hosts E!’s “The Soup”), plays Bakula’s counterpart agent brought in from Washington. Melanie Lynskey, playing Whitacre’s patient, well-dressed-and-coiffed wife, is a sweetly Midwestern caricature. Patton Oswalt, Ann Cusack, the Smothers Brothers, and Tom Papa have scene-stealing small roles. Soderbergh seems to have cast his net far and wide on the west coast, and come up with an array of great comedic actors to support Damon.

Soderbergh generally plays more than one role in his films, and in The Informant! he took on the cinematography and was occasionally the sole camera operator. He filmed with a high-def digital camera, which allowed for as much low or natural lighting as possible. The result is a documentary feel that places the audience directly in the boardroom with the cast. To add to the realism, filming actually took place in Decatur—no distracting palm trees to be seen in this Midwest.

No one knows exactly why Whitacre suddenly turned whistleblower on the company that had been fixing him up royally for years; maybe it was a crisis of conscience, maybe he really did think he was being the good guy—or maybe he was just bored. But Soderbergh’s genius lies in his canny ability to make a series of very serious crimes into a very funny caper film. Although Whitacre went to jail for nine years, upon his release he was made CEO of Cypress Systems, Inc. With The Informant!, Damon and Soderbergh likewise come out on top.

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