Saturday, February 6, 2010



It is great to know that Steven Soderbergh is willing to come correct after his actorless spirit-killer, THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE. Unfortunately, he is still signing on to directing projects with weak plots. This time around he is dragging the waters of the “based on real events” realm of moviemaking. There is even an artistic license disclaimer at the beginning stating that the characters are composites, and the dialogue has been touched. THE INFORMANT! is carried solely by the quality of acting in the film, especially that of Matt Damon.

Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a corporate whistle-blower who is in way over his head. Damon’s performance is captivating. He has put on the extra pounds around the middle, grown a fireman’s moustache, and mastered some twitches that come off as intelligent yet imbalanced. Damon’s performance is initially zany, but the off-kilter pacing of the film and general lack of plot make the Whitacre character less and less amusing as the film wears on.

The general plot of THE INFORMANT! concerns the FBI investigation of corporate extortion and international price-fixing crimes involving ADM, a corn-processing company. Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) is the vice president who reveals to his bosses that he’s received a corporate extortion demand for ten million dollars. His bosses (against Whitacre’s better judgement) bring the FBI into the mix. Whitacre’s home phone lines are tapped, and at the prompting of his wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), Whitacre tells Agent Shepard (Scott Bakula) about ADM’s price fixing schemes.

The rest of the film features a lot of unnecessary globe-trotting to sit-down meetings where Whitacre wears a wire and also compiles hundreds of secret recordings documenting corporate malfeasance. The travels that are presented onscreen, from Zurich to Mexico City to Tokyo to Paris, are all unremarkable because they merely feature hotel meetings and waiting areas in airports.

When Whitacre finally manages to accumulate enough damning evidence against ADM, he envisions himself helming the company now that he has managed to clean up the crime. He even adopts the G-manspeak when telling others of his exploits. But Whitacre’s delusion is apparent to everyone but himself. There is no question that Whitacre is a dazzlingly intelligent man; he is just so full of eccentric narcissism that a lot of what he says and does falls short of rationality.

THE INFORMANT! is a sophisticated “talkie.” There are no guns, explosions, or fists to the head. There are some pretty shots, but what is communicated in the film could have been done in a radio show or a dramatic podcast for that matter. This is a film completely concerned with the words that are being spoken and not the action happening onscreen. All of the codes to be unraveled in THE INFORMANT! are verbal.

The film presents a shell-game for the viewer to suss out; sadly the answer is rather unremarkable. When the last ten minutes of the film give the answer to the whole story, it becomes a lesson in unfair scriptwriting. Soderbergh and screenplay writer Scott Z. Burns have chosen to present half-truths and obscured facts in order to bloat and float the plot. They further bog the story down with extraneous jargon and business rhetoric in order to maximize their 100-plus minutes of runtime.

What makes this film feel like more than simply a quirky, wordy documentary are the comedic AMERICAN PSYCHOesque musings of Whitacre in voice-over. Whether he is considering the syllable count of the word “pen” in German or the potential maximizing of time by flossing his teeth and conditioning his hair simultaneously in the shower, it is all amusingly left-field and captivating. Another tangent that Whitacre indulges in has to do with expensive clothing and high-end automobiles. Most unsettling is Whitacre’s sinister thoughtlife that has to do with suddenly dropping dead. Elements of this and Whitacre’s constant fidgeting create a tension that suggests that the THE INFORMANT! is headed toward a violent conclusion.

THE INFORMANT! is basically an exercise in finding the truth about Whitacre and his employers. There is a parade of familiar faces on the way to such truth. The dumpy comedian Patton Oswalt plays Agent Herbst of the FBI’s “economic crimes division.” Clancy Brown of STARSHIP TROOPERS and SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION also plays a corporate heavy lawyer named Aubrey Daniels. The performances of all are strong.

The red herrings that pile up become elements of comedy, and the ground of logic in the plot is continually shifting. Idiosyncratic behavior rules this film, and it isn’t just Damon’s character. The film looks at corporate incompetence and crime through a peculiar lens that playfully skewers the FBI, corporate culture, the American public and anyone who has ever fallen for a Nigerian ponzi scheme.

THE INFORMANT! nurtures the build-up towards full-disclosure of who this Whitacre character is and what he is all about. But when full-disclosure is finally reached, it is far from satisfying. By the time Whitacre feels that he can unveil “the master puppeteer” behind all of the wrongdoings in the story, the film has already worn out its welcome. The interest level in the characters has waned, and the plot is obviously extending itself, abusing the audience by holding basic facts from them. THE INFORMANT! achieves feature-length by padding itself with counterproductive or trite details. It would have worked better as a bizarre, hour-long documentary on the History Channel.

-Mediasaurus Rex

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