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Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Informant!

You never know what you're going to get with a Steven Soderbergh film, and with The Informant! you're not even sure as the closing credits roll. I think it's a psychological drama masquerading as a comedy, but it might be the exact opposite. Some critics, specifically A.O. Scott, write that this genre-bending is part of the film's genius, but I'm not so sure. This film may be as bipolar as its main character.

Viewers can be excused if they swallow this film as nothing more than a comedy in the Coen Brothers tradition, from the exclamation point at the end of the title, to Matt Damon's cheesy moustache, to Marvin Hamlisch's bouncy score, which recalls the canned music from 1960s sit-coms. Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a bioscientist who has made VP at agricultural conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland. He comes to his bosses with a story about a Japanese rival looking to extort money in exchange for information on a saboteur, and in turn the FBI is brought in (primarily in the form of agent Scott Bakula). This, though, is just the start of a slippery slope of misinformation, as Damon goes to work as a mole for the FBI, gathering information on price-fixing.

What starts as a film about corporate malfeasance that any liberal could love, Soderbergh slowly twists it into something else entirely. Whitacre, it turns out, is entirely unreliable, and I won't say more in order to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say that the film is really about a pathological liar, and the destruction of a man's life. It gets harder to laugh at the more the movie progresses.
But there are plenty of laughs. Soderbergh frontloads the film with manic comic energy, and also peppers the cast with stand-up comedians (including cameos by both Smothers Brothers). I found the funniest bits to be Damon's running commentary of stray thoughts that come in his head, even as he's meeting with FBI agents or his bosses, about things as meaningless as neckties or how polar bears hide their black noses when they hunt ("How do they know they have black noses?" Damon wonders).

Whitacre is an inspired creation. This is based on a true story, but I have to believe that everything we see of Whitacre is Matt Damon alone. He plays the man as an overfed, seeming well-meaning Midwesterner who is over his head, but as the movie progresses darker and darker layers of Whitacre emerge, and Damon, while hilarious through most of the film, also can be chilling in his pathology.

I think this film edges around greatness, but never gets there, and I left the theater underwhelmed. I'd give it an uninspired B-minus, but will expect Damon to be in conversation when it comes to Best Actor nominees.

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