Informant!, The (United States, 2009)September 18, 2009
Under the control of a different director, The Informant! might have been a reasonably straightforward thriller. With Steven Soderbergh at the helm, however, this has become a whimsical, semi-comedic romp, complete with a score by Marvin Hamlisch that recalls kitschy '70s TV shows, cutesy captions, and a tongue-and-cheek approach to the entire story. Although loosely based on the true-life book by former New York Times journalist Kurt Eichenwald (who also serves as a producer), Soderbergh has transformed this into a treatise on the incompetence of everyone involved: the informant, the corporation upon which he informs, the lawyers, and the FBI. Strangely enough, it's completely believable.
Matt Damon plays the title character, Mark Whitacre, who is a biochemist working in an executive position for corporate giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), based in Decatur, Illinois. When he becomes uneasy about a price fixing scheme, Mark goes to the FBI and reveals his concerns to Special Agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale). They rig him with a wire and get him to make over 200 tapes of meetings and conversations to use as evidence. But there are some questions. What is Mark getting out of this? Is he as clean and reliable a witness as he initially seems? Unraveling the mysteries around Mark and his motives generates more interest than the rather pedantic circumstances surrounding ADM's illegal activities.
Movies with unreliable narrators can be fun because the viewer only thinks he knows what's going on, and it would be difficult to find a less trustworthy storyteller than Mark Whitacre. We get a sense of this early in the proceedings when Mark's voiceovers start offering tangential observations completely unrelated to the narrative. It's disconcerting to hear Matt Damon's voice offering an opinion about something that has nothing to do with what's transpiring on-screen. Some of the things he believes are at variance with the reality in which the movie is set. He sees himself as a secret agent when, in reality, he's closer to Maxwell Smart than James Bond.
Matt Damon is virtually unrecognizable as the mustachioed Mark, wearing spectacles and a too-furry toupee. He's about as far from the lean-and-mean Jason Bourne as can be imagined. Damon provides the film's star power. From him, it's a significant step down to the next recognizable name (Scott Bakula) and an even further step beyond that. Soderbergh has rarely been concerned about stocking his films with famous people, and this is evidence of that. Even though Damon is generally deemed as "bankable," his performance here is along the lines of what might expect from a character actor, not a headliner.
The film's quirky subject matter makes it more difficult to get a handle on than projects like Erin Brokovich and The Insider, where the toll of corporate malfeasance can be easily quantified and measured in terms of human suffering. In this case, the bottom line is that ADM is trying to collude with major corporations across the world to inflate profits for lysine, a food additive made from corn. This is big business, to be sure, but the subject matter is pretty hard for a movie-goer to get worked up about. That's why Soderbergh elected to focus less on the particulars of the investigation and more on the peculiarities of the whistle-blower. The resulting movie has its share of fun moments and is full of the absurd but it's probably easier to admire for its craft than it is to enjoy as conventional entertainment. Nevertheless, it evidences sufficient charm to make it worth viewing, especially when one considers how barren the current cinematic landscape is.
Informant!, The (United States, 2009)
Cast: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey, Ann Cusack
Screenplay: Scott Z. Burns, based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald
Cinematography: Peter Andrews
Music: Marvin Hamlisch
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
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