Monday, September 21, 2009

Movie Review: The Informant!

Here's Ben's review of The Informant! early for you bloggies.

Wiretap Dance
Matt Damon
’s a dirty, hairy rat in The Informant!
Ben Coffman

The phrase “corporate intrigue” usually conjures images of dark Armani suits, slicked hair and lawyers racing against the clock to get a key piece of evidence into court before The Bad Guy’s case is dismissed. The Informant! has none of those things. But it is a highly entertaining film with Matt Damon playing a schlub, Joel McHale playing an FBI agent and an exclamation point in the film’s title. What more could you want from a true story?

In The Informant!, Damon transforms into Mark Whitacre, a man made of one part bad moustache and one part agribusiness executive who has been shaken well, poured into a starched-stiff suit and garnished with the sort of eccentricities that can only come from a well-disguised personality disorder. The movie begins in 1992, and Whitacre is living in rural Illinois and working for Archer Daniels Midlands (ADM), a giant agribusiness conglomerate.

With his bad feathered hair and Republican-red ties, Damon plays the well-educated Whitacre like an anti-Michael Clayton. But despite his lack of coolness and good looks, life is good, as evidenced by his collection of high-end foreign sports cars. The father-son owners of ADM, Mick and Dwayne Andreas, trust Whitacre explicitly, and his reward for good service is a paycheck weighty enough to anchor a speedboat. But when the FBI comes a’ calling about an extortion scheme involving lysine experimentation, Whitacre confides, at his wife’s prompting, that ADM has been meeting with other businesses in an international price-fixing scheme.

FBI agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula, of “Quantum Leap” fame) and Bob Herndon (McHale, of “The Soup” fame) are subsequently assigned to Whitacre. Over the next several years, Whitacre travels the world, wearing a wire and collecting 250 hours of taped conversations, an accumulation of interviews long enough to make even Ken Burns turn green with envy. However, Whitacre’s gossamer hold on reality seems to evaporate as he moves deeper into a world of corporate spying and lies.

Throughout the tragicomedy, Damon provides the viewer with ostensibly inconsequential, stream-of-consciousness (that’s a nice way of saying “rambling”) narration, which, in turn, provides the audience with plenty of opportunities for laughs. Award-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch matches the main character’s whimsy with a jaunty, anachronistic soundtrack, like a quirkier version of the soundtrack from the Robert Redford movie The Sting (which was also composed by Hamlisch).

Based on a book by Kurt Eichenwald (who was also featured on an episode of Public Radio’s “This American Life”) and directed by Steven Soderbergh (director of the Ocean’s series), The Informant! is the common man’s Duplicity. Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately, depending on your preferences), despite the pedigree of the lead character and the director, The Informant! isn’t Oscar bait. The film is funny without resorting to goofiness and serious without burdening itself with weighty or depressing themes, leaving it in awards-show no-man’s-land. Even Damon’s 30-pound weight gain, an overused gambit by serious actors looking for a little extra attention, will likely remain unrewarded this year. Regardless, The Informant! remains one of the year’s most entertaining films.

Grade: A-

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