Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Review: The Informant

The Informant! is a bizarre and brilliant film. Directed by Hollywood indie auteur Steven Soderbergh, it is inspired by the real-life story of the Arthur-Daniels-Midlands price-fixing scandal of the mid-1990's, told from the questionable point of view of engineer turned executive Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon). Whitacre is a devoted family man, has a fulfilling, high-paying job, and seems altogether content, so when he suddenly goes to the FBI with inside info on his employers' possible illegal activity, something is probably up.
The film begins routinely enough. Whitacre narrates as he drives his son to school, telling us some facts about corn we might not know (his company is a corn conglomerate, among other things). The score is light and upbeat, the cinematography is bright and glossy; we appear to be in for a pleasant, if predictable, 108 minutes of entertainment. This familiar and comfortable feeling is fleeting, however. We don’t really notice at first, but things slowly start to take a strange turn into to unforeseeable territory.
Matt Damon is a very well-liked movie star, and Soderbergh uses this to his advantage in order to take the audience somewhere they cannot possibly foresee at the outset. The fact that Whitacre, with much to lose and apparently not much to gain, not only rats out his company, but goes undercover as an informant for the FBI, endears him to us immediately. He is an everyman, portrayed by the afore mentioned beloved movie star, putting himself in a heroic position; there is almost nothing that could turn the audience against him. Almost nothing.
Aside from Damon, there are no widely recognizable faces in the picture. many key supporting roles are played by standup comedians; they all do a fine job, to be sure, but it is a strange move on Soderbergh’s part. Stranger still, is the the superb choice of Quantum Leap alum Scott Bakula as the beleaguered FBI agent assigned to Whitacre and the ADM investigation. Bakula’s last high profile role was as Captain Archer on the dreadful Star Trek spin-off Enterprise, a part for which, many felt, he was terribly miscast. So it is a baffling yet welcome surprise to see Bakula tearing through a meaty role that suits him to a tee. His Agent Brian Shepard is a gruff, world-weary, and honest man who doesn’t take any crap, and he makes the perfect foil for Whitacre, especially as the latter’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Bakula’s presence in the film is weird and wonderful, and helps to elevate things above the normal Hollywood fare.
Another lesser known actor who almost steals the show is Melanie Lynskey as Whitacre’s loving wife, Ginger. She takes a role that easily could have been phoned-in as a standard ‘supportive spouse’ to another level. Her performance is subtle and honest in a way that Damon’s certainly isn’t, and it gives the film its moral and emotional center. Later in the film, after certain things have been revealed regarding Whitacre, the only reason we continue to care about him is because she cares.
Soderbergh takes what on the surface seems completely ordinary and turns it into something unexpected. The film is not what it seems, just as Whitacre is not. The narration that our protagonist provides throughout the movie actually has nothing to do with the action on screen, or even the story; he talks about the hunting behaviors of polar bears, or wonders what kinds of tie he should buy. It is such a bizarre thing, a voice over that does not help to illustrate or explain what we are watching. However, we do not even notice this incongruence until very late because we are so used to hearing voice overs in films. Soderbergh takes what the audience is familiar with and mutates it in order to challenge us without our knowledge.

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