Saturday, October 3, 2009

Matt Damon! With a Mustache! Exclamation Point!

If one were to read only a short synopsis of it, Steven Soderbergh's new film The Informant! might sound like just another corporate whistleblower film. As IMDB puts it: "The U.S. government decides to go after an agri-business giant with a price-fixing accusation, based on the evidence submitted by their star witness, vice president turned informant Mark Whitacre." Perhaps Soderbergh is challenging himself, trying to remake his earlier Erin Brockovich without benefit of Julia Roberts' breasts? One look at the film's poster, however, shows that The Informant! is a very different film. Matt Damon, with glasses, a mustache, and a look of wondering stupidity, captioned with the word "Un-believ-able!" Yes, The Informant! is a comedy. Alas, it's not all that great of one.

I hadn't heard much about this film before seeing it, about all I knew was that it was a film that one should watch "unspoiled." While the film contains no plot twists to match Psycho or Witness for the Prosecution, I'm not going to spend much time discussing the twists, turns, and dodges of The Informant!. If you want to watch this film, you will enjoy it far more if you don't know what's coming. Suffice to say that Soderbergh's film departs very far from the Brockovich template.

If The Informant! fails, it's due to no fault of Matt Damon, who is wonderful as title character Mark Whitacre. Had I seen The Informant! before the Bourne films, I would be hard-pressed to believe Damon could ever play an action hero; here he looks like a younger William Macy. Damon's Whitacre is delusive, goofy, and, at least initially, endearing. Awkward and unwary, he's not the FBI's ideal "mole" for its investigation into biochem company ADM. There's a lot of implied depth to Damon's character, but the film doesn't do a terribly good job delving into it – we see Whitacre make mistakes, but never really learn why he does. We hear other characters discuss his issues, but we never see Whitacre grapple with them himself. The film offers one or two potential explanations for Whitacre, but the film's conclusion suggests that none of the "solutions" work. Ambiguity is all well and good, but the script doesn't give viewers enough fodder to chew over. Perhaps we are supposed to conclude that Whitacre is merely a Foolish American Dreamer? That's all very well and good, but it's hardly fresh. One expects more of a director with Soderbergh's reputation. Comedy, good sir, can also do psychological portraiture.

There are serious moments in The Informant!, but most of the film seems rather light and fluffy. And yet I wish that Soderbergh had enhanced the comic aspects of the story and situations. While it has a few laugh-out-loud moments, The Informant! is neither sufficiently funny nor sufficiently dramatic to be memorable. Damon's comic performance is wonderful, but he needs a script that either lets him be really funny or lets him show Whitacre's pathos and weakness. As it stands, The Informant! tries and fails to be two different films at once.

Genre indecision aside, The Informant!'s script has a number of problems. The executives being informed upon are obnoxiously funny; you can understand why Whitacre would want to turn the tables on them. Alas, they receive very little screen time. Whitacre's wife is a major character, but the rest of his family is almost nonexistent. We're introduced to two of his children, but they vanish fairly early in the film. After the midway point of the movie, Whitacre's wife Ginger seems to be the only other member of the family unit. Whitacre's children are fairly prominent at the beginning of the film; one could be forgiven for thinking they were important.

Soderbergh, whatever faults he might have, always makes his films look interesting. Here he emphasizes the "old-fashioned" period of the story. New locations are signaled with a sixties-looking font; ancient cellphones make a few appearances, but Soderbergh can't resist showing us pay phones again and again. When computers appear, they have green and black screens. Whitacre records incriminating conversations on reel-to-reel tapes. Damon has a mustache that would have looked unfashionable in the forties. Though the story takes place in the nineties, Soderbergh has contrived to make everything in the film seem antiquated. It's a device that wouldn't work for most "serious" films, but it works wonders for The Informant!'s comedy of errors. The retro look may undercut the film's points about corporate greed and its effect on the "little man," but I think it's worth the sacrifice of topicality. I, for one, would rather watch an enjoyable film than a "relevant" one.

There's not too much too say about non-Damon actors in The Informant!, as he is very much the center of the film. Melanie Lynskey is good as Whitacre's wife, the too-often-quiet voice of his conscience. And the film's long-suffering FBI agents are quite good. Scott Bakula plays the lead agent on the ADM case; his Agent Shepard vacillates between friendliness towards and frustration with Whitacre. He seems to spend half of his life in cramped hotel rooms, trying to run his mole without losing his mind. Like most of the movie's cast, he's an essentially comic figure, but Bakula still manages to show a deep seriousness and dedication in his scenes.

I enjoyed The Informant!, but I'm not sure I can recommend it. As good as Damon is and as nice as Soderbergh has made the movie look, I can't help but think that this production is less than the sum of its parts. The Informant! is a good movie, and I wouldn't be surprised if Damon got an award or two for Whitacre. But I can't in good conscience recommend paying ten bucks to go see this on the big screen. It's a shame, as a few tweaks to the script could have made a fantastic film.

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