SHORT TAKE: “The Informant!” (***)

Posted by · 5:00 am · September 7th, 2009

The Informant!

Venice Film Festival

That jaunty exclamation mark handily sets the tone for Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!,” a flip, frisky entertainment that may well represent the year’s most audacious feat of adaptation.

Of course, the trailer already (and unavoidably) pulled the covers from the film’s biggest trick: that writer Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) has reimagined Kurt Eichenwald’s dense non-fiction thriller about a mid-1990s agribusiness price-fixing scandal as a rapid-fire corporate comedy of errors, like “The Insider” as filtered through the dry whimsy of Preston Sturges.

It’s a double or nothing strategy that merrily pays off, offering rich comic dividends as the true-life nature of the material elevates its absurdity, but — far more surprisingly — not sacrificing the sense of consequence and complexity in the events at hand.

Critically touching on both the antisocial nature of corporate American greed and the inefficiency of the government in curbing it, the film actually makes an elegant companion piece to its its festival compatriot, Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” (reviewed here).

The perspective Soderbergh presents here, however, is a lot less judgmental or clear-cut than Moore’s, thanks in no small part to the guiding presence of Matt Damon, whose subtle, malleable characterization here keeps framing and reframing the film’s own ethical stance.

Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a folksy, seemingly guileless Cornell grad and up-and-comer at agricultural behemoth ADM, with whose illegal price-fixing of food additive lysine he is complicit, until his aggrieved wife (an affecting Melanie Lynskey) urges him to turn whistleblower for the FBI. So begin several years of eager — if not particularly adept — duplicity on Whitacre’s part, but just as the FBI close in the company, Whitacre’s personal web of business indiscretions begins to unravel.

The brilliance of Damon’s performance – and, consequently, the pleasure of the film – lies in the fact that Whitacre is by turn a lot smarter and a lot dumber than people take him for.

We never quite gauge the reliability of his narration until the final reel; not unlike his otherwise wholly different turn in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” he reveals the psychological cracks in the makeup of the American everyman so incrementally that you hardly notice until it’s too late. Aided by a deadpan comic fluidity the actor has never controlled so comfortably, it’s the finest work of his career.

Soderbergh, meanwhile, matches Damon’s playfulness by channelling the knockabout tone of socially aware 1970s comedies like “The Candidate,” right down to details like the lurid opening credits and a cheerfully antiquated score (his first for a feature in 13 years) from Marvin Hamlisch.

The hyper-self-reflexive trappings can grow a claustrophobic over the course of an entire feature, and the storytelling lags a little at both ends — this is a film that could have benefitted from clocking in at a crisp 90 minutes. But Burns’ busy, persistently witty flow of dialogue (most amusing of all in the stream-of-consciousness voiceover of Damon’s interior thoughts) generally distracts us from such structural quibbles.

Quite what the legions of readers who made Eichenwald’s exposé a bestseller make of the film remains to be seen, but no matter: the most significant achievement of “The Informant!” — its quicksilver lead performance aside — lies in revealing more than one way to tell a story.

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12 responses so far

  • 1 9-07-2009 at 6:44 am

    John said...

    I don’t know. I like Matt Damon. I like Soderbergh. But something about the plot/setting/characters is not pulling me in to this one. I mean, I’ll see it. But I’m not gonna run out on opening day.

    On a side note.: Daily Mail reports on ‘Glorious 39’ (opening in Toronto) and thinks it is terrific; possibly sparking controversy along the way.

    Great performances (apparently). British WWII period piece. This could make an impression.

  • 2 9-07-2009 at 7:53 am

    Liz said...

    Thanks, Guy. This is one of my most anticipated for the fall, and I’m glad to see that it’s worth it.

    We all know that Oscar is hit-and-miss when it comes to recognizing comedy, but do you think Matt Damon might have a shot? The movie seems more like satire than straight-up comedy, and Damon changes his physical appearance (which I think we all know helps), so does his performance seem like something the Academy might recognize?

  • 3 9-07-2009 at 8:22 am

    Danny said...

    I really thought Damon should’ve received an Oscar nominated for The Talented Mr. Ripley. I thought that was a greatly underrated film, but I’m not sure this one will have the same problem.

  • 4 9-07-2009 at 9:55 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Liz: I’m really not sure. It is a substantial performance with or without the comedy aspect, but it’s also quite sly, subtle work that I worry might go over some voters’ heads. The film is unlikely to be major bait, which doesn’t help. He deserves consideration, though, and is the kind of well-liked, hard-working guy they like to reward.

    A Golden Globe nod is surely in the works, for starters.

  • 5 9-07-2009 at 10:44 am

    Rae Kasey said...

    Sounds interesting, at least. Glad to hear Damon pulls off what sounds like a tricky role. I think he’s great and long overdue for some recognition.

  • 6 9-07-2009 at 11:15 am

    Joel said...

    This looks like a good flick all-around. I’m looking forward to it, definitely.

  • 7 9-07-2009 at 11:27 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Our opinions are lining up more and more this week, Guy.

  • 8 9-07-2009 at 11:35 am

    Jester said...

    From the trailer it looks like Soderbergh is using natural and source lighting, like he did in the Girlfriend Experience. I didn’t think it worked there, although it was thematically appropriate and a noble attempt. Am I right about the lighting in The Informant? Does it work?

  • 9 9-07-2009 at 11:37 am

    Marvin said...

    Soderbergh has done nothing but disappoint me lately. I had such expectations for The Good German a few years ago and he fucked it up. Still, he is one of the most interesting filmmakers working and you just gave me hope that The Informant! could be good. I can’t believe I might get to see this before either of his Che movies make it to Puerto Rico.

  • 10 9-08-2009 at 4:49 am

    Matthias said...

    I have been wary of any such early proclamations of a Best Actor frontrunner (or frontrunners in any category, for that matter) and I slammed Sasha Stone for a piece on Awards Daily called “Matt Damon’s year”. It’s my conviction that every time the larger film community pushed so relentlessly for one allegedly overdue person to win the Oscar and finally they did (think Martin Scorsese or Kate Winslet), the Academy has ultimately honored someone who, yes, does deserve to call himself Academy Award winner, but not for that particular film.

    Now having seen the Informant! trailer, I have to concede that Matt Damon, from what I can see, should be in serious contention. And given the Academy’s track record of wanting to reward those hard-working people who have just never quite made it to the win (although Damon does have an Oscar on his mantle, of course), I could see how we would see Matt Damon give an acceptance speech at the Kodak in March. Let’s just hope his performance indeed towers above the competition so that this won’t go down in my Oscar history book as another year where a long wait got someone the award instead of a true best performance.

  • 11 9-25-2009 at 9:15 am

    M. Carter said...

    The more I see of Matt Damon, the more impressed I become. He’s really coming into his own as an actor, and I think “The Informant!” may contain his best performance yet. What I like about the character is that Damon reveals so much about Whitacre — his ticks, his weaknesses, his humanity — through facial expressions and the inner monologues. Whitacre is a nut to crack, and Damon does not give us any easy answers as to why this guy does what he does.