Tuesday, October 13, 2009

502 - The Informant! review

Mark Whitacre, a president of significant stature at Archer Daniel Midland, blew the whistle. He became the highest-level executive in this nation’s history to do so, recording hundreds of his colleagues’ conversations and meetings over a period of several years. This might have been heroic had he not been embezzling millions for himself on the side.

Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!” appears to be about Whitacre, and it is, but not in the way it begins. For most of the runtime, it feels like a slightly quirky boardroom drama; the story takes place in hotels, conference rooms, executive offices, and expensive cars. But about 80 minutes in the perspective shifts from Whitacre to others, and we see that what we were watching all along wasn’t concerned with industrial espionage and corporate crime, but with the malfunctioning personality of its protagonist. Suddenly, the constant and seemingly unrelated voiceovers make perfect sense, and our vantage is so that it’s all different.

Whitacre is played by Matt Damon in one of his rare performances that I actually like. His Whitacre is a sort of grinning, shifty creep; he announces his intentions as benevolent, but it’s hard to believe. Why, like he claims, would he risk his extremely lucrative career to help the FBI? Moral outrage at his company’s price fixing, he says. Perhaps the fact that he’s a family man with a cheerful demeanor makes us and those FBI agents want to believe that Whitacre’s a good fellow, but an early lie he tells holds a clue (I’ll confess now that I’ve no clue how accurately the film represents the real man).

His FBI handlers (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale, who plays it totally straight) admire his tenacity at getting the job done, but have difficulty working with such a compulsive liar. His wife (Melanie Lynskey) tries to provide moral support, but it later becomes clear that he’s not the sort of fellow. Here, I think Soderbergh hedges his bets a bit; when the film should take a concrete position on Whitacre, it waffles. Split between sympathy for Whitacre and contempt for his misdeeds, the film wants us to like him even as we’re supplied with virtually no reason to. It’s really an odd choice for a wide release; no action, only moderately light laughs, nothing worth an Oscar nomination or an enthusiastic endorsement (aside from critics who think Soderbergh’s name demands a glowing review by default, and there are plenty of those). The only thing I can think of is that the subject matter, which discusses corporations ripping people off, might seem topical to some in the studio’s marketing department, except they forget that no matter how much animosity most people feel towards big business, when pressed for a reason, they often find themselves unable to make a coherent case for their antipathy.

Steven Soderbergh is a sort of filmmaker’s filmmaker. Making waves with his 1989 independent drama “sex, lies, and videotape,” he has worked steadily ever since, making films ranging from tiny experimental pieces (“Bubble”) to big studio jobs designed to maximize profit (the “Ocean’s Eleven” series). My guess: the big pictures are for the scratch, but the human dramas are where his heart is. He’d much rather make a movie about two people talking about their feelings than one where things blow up quite nicely. A treat, if you like that sort of thing.

3 out of 5

1 comment:

Heidi said...

I totally agree! I think the critics liked it because of Soderbergh.

“The Informant!” is mostly a snooze fest, and though it’s being called a “dark comedy,” it lacks a punch line.

The exclamation point in the title of the movie is an assertion of excitement the story is unable to fulfill.