Sunday, October 25, 2009

Review - The Informant!

What a difference an exclamation point makes. If you saw a film entitled
The Informant, you might expect a serious and dramatic undercover thriller, but in calling his film The Informant!, Steven Soderbergh has prepared us for an altogether goofier take on the material. The irreverent tone is established right away, with the credits and captions appearing in a large, cartoony font, and the score by Marvin Hamlisch is a jaunty, retro affair that initially seems at odds with the material. These seem like typically playful stylistic choices on Soderbergh's behalf, but we quickly come to realise that they suit the story perfectly; the bizarre twists and turns that occur in the tale of Mark Whitacre are simply too weird to be played straight.

Whitacre (played by a chunky Matt Damon) was a top executive at ADM in the early 1990's, who informed the FBI of a price-fixing scandal in the corn industry. You may well wonder why on earth a senior figure at a major company, earning over $350,000 a year, would help bring down his own firm, and a couple of agents at the Bureau did have the same thought. Agent Brian Shepherd (Scott Bakula), however, was convinced by Whitacre's homeliness, and his professed desire to take down the culture of corruption surrounding him, and he coordinated a sting operation in which Whitacre recorded key ADM figures plotting with other companies to raise the price of lysine. The evidence was gold, but this is where the story starts to get weird. It turns out Whitacre is not the most reliable of witnesses, and he has been less than forthcoming about his own financial indiscretions. These revelations threaten to scupper the entire investigation, but throughout it all, Whitacre retains the same chirpy, optimistic demeanour.

His personality dictates the tone of
The Informant!, which bounds along with infectious enthusiasm, and Soderbergh allows us to view the story from Whitacre's point-of-view, by adding an eccentric, discursive voiceover reflecting the character's thought process. From any simple starting point, Whitacre can ramble off on a tangent; he queries the correct pronunciation of the word Porsche, wondering how polar bears know to cover their nose in the snow ("That seems like an awful lot of thinking for a bear"), or pondering Japanese girls' underwear. It's a treat to see a filmmaker using voiceover in an imaginative and pointed way, rather than simply using it as a lazy form of narration, and this clever aspect of Scott Z. Burns' screenplay establishes Whitacre as the ultimate unreliable narrator right from the start. The other achievement of Burns' script lies in the way it manages to negotiate the murky world of ADM and Whitacre's chicanery, introducing new revelations in every second scene late on, without creating confusion or collapsing under the weight of it all.

Damon has great fun with his character, bringing an innate likeability and endearing optimism to someone who is essentially a crook, but it's hard to really get a fix on his who this person is. This is because Whitacre doesn't seem have much of a character. He's a fantasist who imagines himself as the hero of his own story ("Like in a Crichton novel"), but I'm not sure the film gets at the heart of Mark Whitacre beneath those levels of deceit, even if it's fun to watch Soderbergh and Damon peeling back the layers anyway. The whole film is a bit like that; it's a glib, very amusing entertainment, which the director handles with his customary class and wit, but its shallowness prevents
The Informant! from being anything more than an enjoyable diversion.