'Informant!' Stone-Faced, Cheeky, and Compelling

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh, Runtime: 108 minutes
Grade: B

Picture the involvedness of Michael Mann's The Insider, only set to brassy romper music, sporting goofy hair pieces, and still retaining a stone-faced attitude. That's the gist behind The Informant!, Steven Soderbergh's oddly-balanced exposé covering the life and times of the highest-level corporate whistleblower in history -- and his own bout with the law. More than anything, this is a case of mis-marketing to the highest accord; going in expecting a stream of laughs, as presented by the joyful poster artwork and chipper trailer, will likely disappoint. However, once you've settled in with the shrewd manner that director Soderbergh has constructed with this narration-heavy farce, it might just surprise with its back and forth between satirical charm and hard-to-believe dramatic turns.

Based off of Kurt Eichenwald's book, as amazing as it might seem, this story of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) is true. Well, it's an embellished truth for the sake of entertainment value, but still true. Whitacre's the science-geared head of the BioProducts division at ADM, a company that specializes in the many uses of corn, who has been participating in price-fixing of lysine, an additive used in everything from breakfast foods to soda. After a spy has been identified in the ADM mix that's causing the company hundreds of millions of dollars, the FBI -- headed in this investigation by Brian Shepherd (Scott Bakula) -- has been brought in to figure out the company's options regarding blackmail. With the authorities breathing down his neck and with his own pack of lies to shield, Whitacre decides to come clean about ADM's price-fixing, even go so far as to wear a recording device and videotape their interactions. He thinks he's in a Crichton novel.

Matt Damon packed on twenty some-odd pounds to play Mark Whitacre, and his dedication to the role shows. He musters an affable oaf out of him with Soderbergh's direction firmly in-tow, lumbering him through the cubicles at ADM with a sweaty, fidgety nature. It's matched with his hilarious cool-as-a-cucumber narration which, more times than not, are attention-deprived streams of consciousness that have little to nothing to do with what's going on around him. He mumbles in his mind about the number of syllables in the German word for pen as he drives to work in his wrongfully-earned Porsche, while pondering a two-for-one sale on striped Oscar de la Renta ties as the FBI investigator asks if he can visit his home and tap his phone line. With a backdrop of vibrant melodies scattered atop some rather real drama, Damon finds a way to project the "innocent" corporate stooge with a sense of infuriating likability -- never faltering, even as he begins to weave his own web of lies.

We catch inklings early on that there might be something amiss with Whitacre, as he scrambles around and fumes in a way that reminds me a bit of William H. Macy's fumbling car salesman in Fargo. The truth, as we discover, is far more complex. Soderbergh dashes through the series of events and yanks away lie after lie that the corporate machine spews out, creating a black hole directly at the center of the sinking consumer-based company. Even as lives are being destroyed, the playful music continues almost in a Benny Hill-esque fashion while Whitacre rambles on about polar bears killing in the wild. He's concerned, obviously, but in our line of sight it's hard not to relish in his maze of lies. Seeing the collapse play out in such a chipper fashion almost made it feel dirty or taboo to get wrapped up in its peculiar tone, and I liked that.

The Informant! makes use of a broadly comedic cast, which deepens the intrigue behind the film when it barely tip-toes over to chuckle-worthy black comedy. Melanie Lynskey, a new favorite from Away We Go and Up in the Air as a flighty-minded archetype, plays Whitacre's manipulative, mousy, yet devotedly loving wife Ginger, showing us where some of the brains behind this whole collapse comes from. Joel McHale from Community and Talk Soup tags along with Scott Bakula's Brian as something of the "bad cop" in the FBI pair, playing the role stern-faced and never opening the floodgates to his exuberance. Other comic names enter the mix -- Patton Oswalt, Tom Papa, even the Smothers Brothers in very separate roles -- that all tease at popping the lid on this whole subdued comedic tone, yet Soderbergh cunningly opts to use their dramatic talents and tease his audience. He thoroughly plays off of their energy, but in a way that's unexpected.

This just isn't that kind of bluntly comedic film, a fact that becomes more and more evident as the components begin to deconstruct and utter corporate chaos ensues. Those unfamiliar with the full network of lunacy within Whitacre's story will feel like things are boiling to a wrap-up point near the center of The Informant! What onlookers won't realize is that we're standing on top of a trap door that's ready to be opened, just as soon as the truth about Whitacre's own greed and scheming begin to surface. He's not a white knight, more of a guy with a warped sense of reality and a bunch of excuses, and Soderbergh uses the opportunity to pump momentum into his picture with grin-inducing suspense. Humorous lines such as the one about ASM committing fraud on the world population before breakfast get a few laughs, but the realism behind Whitacre's collapse -- a fidgety stream of dishonesty -- is slack-jaw inducing on a firm level.


Post a Comment

Thoughts? Love to hear 'em -- if they're kept clean and civil.