The Informant! (***½)

Posted on September 18th, 2009 in Engineerboy,Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy
Lies Scene

Lies Scene

The Informant is a *real* movie, made the way movies should be made.  First of all, the script is amazing.  Second, the acting is phenomenal.  Third, the score is perfect.  Fourth, the costumes, locations, and make-up are flawless.  And fifth, the directing and cinematography are beautiful.

And sixth of all, it’s funny as hell!

The story is loosely based on the events surrounding the Archers Daniels Midland price-fixing scandal of the 1990’s, primarily involving lysine, a food additive.  Matt Damon plays a fictionalized version of real-life whistle-blower Mark Whitacre, a high-level ADM executive who turned informant for the FBI.

As imagined in The Informant!, Mark Whitacre is a mildly sociopathic, self-deluding, compulsive-lying, white-collar criminal.  When Whitacre blames his own failures on sabotage by competitors, the FBI is called in to investigate.  Lead agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) develops a rapport with Whitacre, and eventually hears about much bigger malfeasance being perpetrated by ADM themselves.  Whitacre’s wife guilts him into revealing the sordid details to the FBI, seemingly because it is the right thing to do.

And over the course of the next few years, Whitacre is run as an undercover agent by the FBI, wearing wires, eliciting damning statements from competitors and co-workers who are being secretly videotaped, and providing substantiating documentation of the global price-fixing being organized by ADM.  And, when they finally have enough evidence to convince the Attorney General’s office that the case is solid, they swoop in and make a bunch of arrests.

And then the fun really begins.  I won’t divulge any of the rest of the story, but suffice it to say that The Informant is an engaging and laugh-out-loud black comedy, made with near-perfect craftsmanship.  Matt Damon added 30+ pounds to meet director Steven Soderbergh’s one-word description of the look we wanted for the character – doughy.  Add the 80’s styled hair and porn-star-ish moustache, and Damon is transformed into a grifter extraordinaire.

And if there was an Oscar category for Best Stream-of-Consciousness-Narration, this film should win, hand’s down.  As played by Damon, Whitacre is placed into many stressful, dangerous, and scary situations, but his running mental commentary is…sublimely detached and egocentric, as if he was having an out of body experience, and while his body and voice stay engaged with the real world, his thoughts wander to trying to figure out how polar bears realized their black noses made them stand out against the snow, and so cover them with a paw while lying in wait for prey.  Did they see their reflection in the ice or the water?  Did they notice other polar bears were conspicuous with their black noses?  That seems like a lot of thinking for a polar bear.

It certainly does.  And this movie will cause a lot of thinking from the audience, because the story moves fast, the plot is serpentine, and there are no dramatic zooms or musical flourishes to alert the audience that Something Important Is Being Conveyed Right Now.  In this film, the plot twists and turns based on casually uttered phrases, and you end up asking yourself, did I just hear that?  But doesn’t that mean the exact opposite of what we already know?  Now what?!?

And I have to admit, it felt really, really good to be engaged both by the humor and also by the complex story.  Too many movies today are either Serious or Funny, but this movie is both.  It’s like a bizarre clone that combines the DNA of Michael Clayton and A Fish Called Wanda, but in a good way.  I mean, the plot revolves around a bunch of execs from a global conglomerate who conspire with their international competitors to fix the price of a food additive.  That’s not exactly a gold mine of possibility, but Soderbergh and company have taken it and crafted one of the most unique and enjoyable movies I’ve seen in years.

To put it in perspective, this is the kind of film where you’re watching a scene where the biggest, baddest, silver-haired ADM exec has come down to face-off with and intimidate his conniving underling, and as the scene unfolds you ask yourself…do I recognize that actor…no…wait…can it be…is that…is that Tommy Smothers playing the executive?!  Yup.  And later on, is that Dick Smothers as the judge?!?  Yup again.

So, directed by Soderbergh, exec produced by George Clooney, starring Matt Damon, story about boring food additives and price fixing, main character is a compulsive liar, there’s a guy from 30 Rock, a guy from Quantum Leap, The Smothers Brothers, and there’s even a gratuitous Cusack in this film (I didn’t know there was a third!).  Put it all together and this is a film.  A Hollywood film.  A piece of cinema.  Not a packaged deal.  Not a marketing campaign.  Not a merchandising machine.

A film.  By film makers.  For film watchers.  Go and enjoy.

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