Sep 30 2009

The Informant!

Film Duel is our written review format in which Benn and James each review a film, and then comment on each others’ reviews to give a proper balance and really fill out the commentary as well as possible. This week, we take on a movie currently in theaters. Specifically, the new film from Steven Soderbergh, The Informant! This movie is a showcase piece for Matt Damon, and takes what might be a serious subject matter, corporate espionage and the relationship between and informant and his FBI handlers, and turns it into a madcap comedy. So is it any good? James and Benn both saw it and have their takes for you.

The Informant!
Year: 2009
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Tony Hale
Genre: Comedy

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

The Informant!, the new film from Steven Soderbergh and starring Matt Damon, was quite a welcome surprise. While the rest of the audience may not have latched on to the humor, my company and I were laughing almost constantly at the ridiculousness of the situations that only real life can provide. In this case, fact really is stranger than fiction.

The Informant! Is about Matt Damon’s character, Mark Whitacre, who decides to rat out the corn company he works for regarding their fixed pricing practices. The FBI get involved, and it turns into a rather farcical ordeal when all is said and done. Really when it comes down to it, the plot is best served by becoming a showcase of the central figure, and in turn Matt Damon’s acting. But while much praise has already gone to Matt Damon for his performance, I do feel that it’s the twists, turns, and situations of the plot that make it so jaw-droppingly funny (and a little scary) by the end of the film.

The character of Mark Whitacre is a truly fascinating person. Early on in the film, through his non sequitur-filled first person narrative, we believe that we are getting an insight into his mind. And these non sequiturs are so random that you can’t help but laugh. Some of them are quite educational as well, if they’re true. We see him interact with people in a way that seems quite friendly, and simultaneously is very awkward, like he doesn’t get the way that people interact and has to think hard to come up with the action that is “natural.” Either way, there’s something awe-inspiring about Matt Damon’s interpretation about him, he works a sort of magic over the people in the film and the audience as well, and manages to deliver lines in a way that is both befuddling and impressive. You want to believe everything he says, and who wouldn’t want to trust Matt Damon?

The execution of the film is pretty good as well, it keeps up a nice pace, primarily through it’s use of whacky contradictory music, and the actors are all directed very well. Each of the supporting actors doesn’t have a ton to work with in terms of screen time, primarily because the plot keeps moving on to different ones, and yet, they still manage to make a really good impression and serve their purpose splendidly. The cinematography is a little on the rough side, but it does capture the decade of the 90’s pretty well and it was likely limited by the budget of the film. Soderbergh, who is his own cinematographer, likes his rough edges and handheld cameras, and they’re all present here as usual. Luckily they enhance the topsy turvy nature of the story in this case.

While not a new cinematic classic, The Informant! does manage to be a really enjoyable time at the theatre. It’s a great character piece, and a look at a character who’s motivations and intentions are unclear for so long, pulling you into the story because of it. And this is a person who’s mind works so differently than our own, that you can’t help but marvel at it. I have no trouble full-heartedly recommending this film, and yet, don’t know that the theatrical experience will really enhance it all that much over DVD. If you’re finding yourself strapped for time, waiting to see it at home certainly won’t hurt.

Benn says:

With today’s failing economy and faltering faith in banks, businesses and the American dollar, Steven Soderbergh gives us something and someone to mock and hate on in his big business non-fictional farce, The Informant!.

Based on actual events that occurred a decade ago, The Informant! tells the story of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a biochemist turned VP for ADM, a corn company located in the Midwest. Seemingly haunted by the backdoor dealings between ADM and other food companies concerning price fixing, Whitacre acts as an informant for the FBI. For the next few years, Whitacre works with special agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) wearing wires and videotaping secret meetings between other various business officials from around the world in hopes of revealing corruption in the world food industry.

Of course, the sting operation itself is only one half of the story. The audience spends most of their time following Whitacre around, witnessing his bizarre mannerisms and even stranger thoughts, which dictate anything between the survival techniques of South American butterflies to his own strategies on multitasking and timesaving. To call Whitacre a character would be an understatement; this guy is flat out nuts, which is why The Informant stands out from other whistle blowing dramas.

Matt Damon plays Whitacre to perfection, using every quirk and flaw wonderfully without overdoing it or rendering Whitacre a two-dimensional buffoon. Granted, Whitacre is a certified whack job, but he’s also extremely intelligent, making Whitacre’s next move truly impossible to predict. True, he comes off as a goofy do-gooder in the beginning of the film, but as the story progresses we see that Whitacre is and is nothing at all what he seems at the same time.

The film’s greatest strength lies in Soderbergh’s ability to tell a true story about a huge corporation, and present as a complete farce. Whitacre’s world is an absurd one; full of greedy, sycophantic employees who make all sorts of back room deals, embezzle inconceivably large amounts of money and live only to buy third homes and seventh Porches. As if that weren’t bad enough, they are idiots who only received their jobs due to favors from mutual golf buddies and rich daddies. And if that wasn’t bad enough, ADM is a real company that farms, manufactures and sells seed products, most notably corn, that ends up in nearly every food product in our local market. Michael Moore may be coming out with anti-big business documentary October 2nd, but Soderbergh may have beaten him to the punch when it comes to revealing the business and economic wizards behind the corporate curtain as oblivious, sheltered fools whose vision and ethics do not exceed their checkbooks.

The overall tone and aesthetic of the film reflects that of the easygoing Seventies, as if to reflect the naivety of the corporate climate, the height of commercialism and the absurdity of the characters’ self constructed world against the actual time period; one will frequently have to remind themselves that this film takes place in the Nineties, regardless of the soft lighting and dated suits. The music itself emulates the sounds of Henry Mancini, whose music was popular in films of that era, and mocks Whitacre, who believes himself to be some kind of elite spy for the government, going so far as to call himself “0014” because he’s “twice as smart as 007”. To accompany the mocking tone of the film, Soderbergh also cast a multitude of comedians in small roles, from Patton Oswalt, to Tom Papa to Tony Hale (the latter of which played Buster on Arrested Development), who use there own talents to play there roles in a serious, though dead-pan nature that plays along with, and against, the tone of the narrative.

Like Michael Moore, and countless other Americans, Steven Soderbergh is angry at how corporations are being run, and how powerful they have been allowed to become, and believe me, its frightening. However, instead of voicing his outrage in a loud, unorganized manner or rallying behind a political figurehead, Soderbergh chooses to out businesses as being childish, dishonest and one big, money-raking comedy of errors that continues to fail upwards. The film’s tagline on its posters it the word “Unbelievable”, and it’s the perfect word to describe the events that unfold in this film. ADM, the sting operation, and Mark Whitacre himself, and everything in between is so far fetched and ridiculous that it is truly unbelievable. And it all actually happened, and probably continues to happen to this very day.

Benn’s rebuttal:

I will agree that the smarmy, yet acerbic sense of humor may not be appreciated by everyone, yet I believe this to be a must see. Matt Damon’s performance is Oscar worthy, and the film itself should be up for a Golden Globe.

James’ rebuttal:

Well said, I don’t have much to add to that because it seems were pretty much in agreement.  I didn’t get a seventies feel perse, but it embraces the most dated aspects of the 1990s, and it’s odd to feel like that decade has already aged so much.  This is one of a growing group of films that are actually period pieces about the 90s.

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