The Informant!

Director    Steven Soderbergh
Starring    Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Tony Hale, Thomas F. Wilson, Rusty Schwimmer, Scott Adsit
Release    18 SEP (US) 20 NOV (UK)    Certificate 15
4 stars


20th November 2009

The Informant! is the best Coen Brothers movie not actually directed by the Coen Brothers. Insanely prolific director Steven Soderbergh has managed to capture the distinct Coen vibe - mainly the sardonic sense of humor and dry wit - while making it completely his own. The final result is an engaging, intricate movie about a whistleblower that manages to double as a send-up of movies about whistleblowers.

Most amazingly, though, Soderbergh and writer Scott Z Burns have crafted a film that hews extremely close to the facts of the real-life case on which it is based (first chronicled in a book by reporter Kurt Eichenwald), and at the same time, manages to be totally hilarious and completely outrageous. The film is practically a testament to the old adage: truth is often much stranger than fiction.

[gallery]Mild, unassuming, and career-minded Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) is the Vice-President of the BioProducts Division at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), an Agri-business firm based in Decatur, Illinois. Mark spends his days dreaming of a more exciting life in which he's the strapping hero of a John Grisham novel, all the while trying to provide a good and stable life for his family. Under pressure to get the lysine division up to scratch, Whitacre claims that he's been in contact with a competitor who is feeding him some inside information. Mark's superiors call in the FBI, and order him to cooperate with their investigation, which is headed up by Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula).

During the investigation, Whitacre informs the FBI that ADM is involved in a huge price-fixing scandal, along with several other corporations all over the world. Whitacre spends the next two years as an unwilling informant and corporate spy. Soon, he starts to embrace the role, thinking that he has finally become the undercover hero he's always wanted to be (his self-styled codename is 0014, "because I'm twice as smart as 007").

The story of The Informant! feels like it's just too weird to be true, but true it is, and that's one of the most incredible aspects of the film. Burns hasn't just written a screenplay that is based on a true story, he pretty much brings the true story to the screen verbatim. The film is a bit convoluted, but it shouldn't prove too much of a problem if one pays close attention to what is going on. And those who do will be rewarded with a genuinely amusing tale of a man who is in way over his head, and only manages to get himself in deeper.

There are times when the movie almost feels like a throwback to the screwball comedies of a bygone era, but then it returns to a more modern sensibility, and reminds the audience that all of this actually happened. Were it not for Soderbergh's expert direction, the film would be in danger of veering too far into the realm of goofy camp or deadly seriousness, but he manages to keep the proceedings on an even keel, and strikes the perfect balance between humor and earnestness.

In addition to Soderbergh's deft direction, The Informant! sports an incredible cast. Matt Damon delivers what might be the best performance of his career, conveying a lot simply through some understated but effective mannerisms. Quite a bit of Damon's dialogue takes place in the form of voiceovers which convey what Whitacre is thinking at any particular moment, and has nothing to do with the actual narrative, and thus Damon does a lot of acting with just his facial expressions or posture. It's a really great performance, and Damon just throws himself into it, seemingly uncaring about whether or not he looks ridiculous or silly.

He's backed by an incredible supporting cast headed up by Scott Bakula, who really deserves some recognition for the great, subtle work he does here as the beleaguered FBI agent who has to deal with the Whitacre's idiosyncrasies and anxieties. The rest of the cast is filled with a who's who of character actors and comedians, all of whom are playing fairly straight roles. It's a nice subversion of the comic personalities of performers like Patton Oswalt, the Smothers Brothers, and Joel McHale, and just kind of adds to the ridiculous nature of the narrative, as well as serves as a great wink to the audience that they shouldn't be taking things too seriously.

It would be a real shame to talk about this movie and not mention the amazing, old school score composed by the legendary Marvin Hamlisch. The music nearly becomes another character in the film, providing a lot of the comic relief throughout without ever informing the audience of how they're supposed to be feeling. It's a lighthearted and fun score, and serves as a throwback to a different period of cinema, providing a nice juxtaposition with the film itself, which is undeniably a product of modern movie sensibilities.

Overall, The Informant! is an odd little film, and one that is sure to divide audiences. It's not a film that allows the audience to just kick back and turn off their brains. However, for viewers who are willing to work a bit, The Informant! is an effective and entertaining account of an unbelievable true story.

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