Friday, September 11, 2009


(Special Presentations)
(USA, 2009, 120 minutes)
Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Matt Damon, Melanie Lynskey, Scott Bakula, Joe McHale, Thomas F. Wilson

Since his last release was the polarizing HD-shot Godard-riff “The Girlfriend Experience”, it’s no surprise that Soderbergh’s followup is a more commercial effort, given his usual pattern of one-for-me/one-for-them post-“The Limey” (for what it’s worth, still my favorite Soderbergh film). Thankfully, whenever Soderbergh “slums” in the Hollywood sandbox, the results are still interesting (I still might be the world’s only passionate supporter of his “Criss Cross” remake “The Underneath” which he’s more or less disowned). While the premise of “The Informant!” doesn’t exactly smack of “box office”, it is a rollicking, uber-accessible work—at first glance another of those “inspired by a true story” prestige-wannabees just in time for Oscar season--headlined by Matt Damon, who clearly relished the opportunity to hide his pungacious, All-American looks behind a layer of paunch threatening to burst through the off-the-rack office attire, and a Sy Sperling hairpiece perched precariously atop a palour baked by flourescents.

But “The Informant!” is more reminiscent of the Coen Bros. downright misanthropic farce “Burn After Reading” than “Erin Brokovich” or that windshield wiper drama with Greg Kinnear. That’s because the title character is hardly a noble, destined-to-be-martyred whistle blower—Damon’s propensity for lying and inability to admit to any personal error defines the term “pathological”, although his later attempts to whitewash his behavior via medical and psychiatric means yield nothing to keep him (justly) out of the slammer (it’s that rare movie where you’re on the side of the Feds for a change…). I don’t know how much of this is actually “true”, but even if a sliver of the screenplay is based upon confirmed facts, then the recent collapse of America’s corporate culture makes a helluva lot more sense.

The incredible whirlwind of events begins when Michael Whitacre (Damon), an executive on the chain at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM, an Illinois agricultural conglomerate ) pulling down six figures despite no real skill or aptitude for business (he defines himself repeatedly as a “chemist”), approaches the FBI with confidential information regarding a global conspiracy in lysine price-fixing allegedly ordered from on high. The tenacious agents—played with winning chemistry and humanity by Scott Bakula and Joel McHale--initially believe Whitacre’s outrageous claims that at first seem noble, moral, and selfless, if at the expense of any common sense and personal gain. Of course, the entire conspiracy has been manufactured by Whitacre, initially because he’s vengeful and bored, but later to provide a smokescreen so he can embezzel tens of millions from the company. Whitacre is such a clueless dolt, the kind of middlebrow salaryman who finds inspirational quotes from in-flight magazines and regards Grisham as literature (even though he doesn’t really read the books, he just watches the movies), that it’s amazing that much more astute individuals—his bosses, the FBI, federal prosecutors, didn’t smell a rat earlier. But he’s an endearing doofus, and his ruse utterly defies logic, that it’s not hard to see why anyone wouldn’t play along…

Visually, Soderbergh (also acting as his own DOP) takes his cues from the Martin Ritt/Mike Nichols playbook and lets his stellar cast and authentic locations (AMD in Decateur, Illinois, and the original Whitacre mansion) bring Scott Burns’ superbly modulated screenplay (equal parts farce and blistering tragedy, adapted from what I gather is fairly straightforward non-fiction account by Kurt Eichenwald). The cast is uniformly excellent, with outstanding supporting turns by Clancy Brown, Patton Oswalt, Thomas F. Wilson, and both Tommy AND Dick Smothers (but not as brothers). It was surprised by the music credit to Marvin Hamlisch, whose last score that I was aware of was 1980’s “Ordinary People”.

©Robert J. Lewis 2009