Movies · Reviews

Review: The Informant!

By  · Published on September 18th, 2009

Matt Damon is an actor whom I thoroughly enjoy shelling out box office cash to see. At the risk of revealing my less-than-covert man crush on him, I really think Damon has developed an incredibly solid body of work in American cinema because he took the time and put in the work. I guess that is the actor in me admiring a movie star who still cares about the character work, but it is something that seems lacking in a majority of the blockbuster set. It is awesomely cruel to chart the careers of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck post Good Will Hunting. You could make a drinking game out their inversely proportional film choices. For every Bourne Identity there is a Reindeer Games; for every Ocean’s 11, a Gigli. Speaking of Ocean’s 11, I’m here to talk about the newest Soderbergh/Damon collaboration. Wow, that was quite possibly the worst segue of all time. Regardless, their newest coupling is called The Informant! and it opens nationally Friday.

I’m not going to go into much detail as far as the plot is concerned. What I found to be so much fun about this film was watching the disastrous events unfold and then spiral out of control. Suffice it to say that a mid-level executive at a corn refining company named Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) gets wind of illegal price controlling practices in which his company is engaging on an international level. He gets the FBI involved in the matter, and suddenly this witless goon becomes the key to a monumental government investigation. The whole film is a comedy of errors that ricochets into some very odd places.

I dug this movie quite a bit. It is a brilliant character study, and Damon’s ability to inhabit an unremarkable shlub is mesmerizing. Particularly spectacular was his regular Joe inner monologue. He’d be walking around his home office when suddenly an idea for the greatest mystery television series this side of “Murder She Wrote” would pop into his thoughts. It was a hilarious brand of stream of consciousness that provided the humor to juxtapose the banality of this man’s everyday life. Damon brings so much empathy and honesty to this shmuck who gets a tiny taste of corporate fraud and immediately believes he’s James Bond. The hallmark of his performance comes just toward the end in a scene where the character’s soul is bared, and you understand fully the complexity and genius of Damon’s work.

What I really enjoyed about The Informant! is it employs the same absurdist treatment of intelligence and government infrastructure as Burn After Reading. Whitacre cannot seem to handle even the simplest tasks if there’s a modicum of intrigue attached. He narrates all his movements while wearing a wire, he adjusts hidden tape recorders in his briefcase in the middle of a meeting, and he blabs everything to anyone who will listen. He is a walking, talking epic fail. It speaks volumes about how intelligence gathering and investigation have no contingency for the stupidity of civilians just like in the Coens’ film.

The supporting cast in this film is solid. Scott Bakula in particular shines as the stern but endearing FBI agent assigned to Whitacre’s case. Joel McHale, of E! network’s “The Soup” fame, turns in a surprisingly serious performance as Bakula’s partner. He is the far more hard-nosed agent and he is funny, but only in his facial reactions to the events of the film; he utters not joke one. There are also a number of cameos from veteran character actors and comedians that you’ve seen before but whose names may escape you. Scott Adsit, Clancy Brown, Melanie Lynskey, and Patton Oswalt all add their capable touches to the film.

The film is not without flaw. Steven Soderbergh does get very experimental in both pacing and framing of individual shots. I have heard several people make reference to the versatility of Steven Soderbergh; one colleague going so far as to call him the most versatile American director working today. I am in complete agreement with this sentiment and I think the variety of his cannon attests to this. That being said, I do not like all of Soderbergh’s films and some of them are down right unwatchable. But I think Soderbergh faces a double-edged sword in that if he only made the films at which he truly excelled, people would eventually consider him a one trick pony. But being that he is so versatile, he is going to branch out and experiment with foreign substances and sometimes he will fail. But I applaud him for refusing to be confined to a box even though this film does suffer slightly for it.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.