Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 22, 2010)
Is it just me, or does it seem like Steven Soderbergh puts out a new movie every two months or so? That overstates his prolific nature, but Soderbergh does crank out quite a lot of films; 2009 saw the release of three features.
What makes Soderbergh’s work remarkable is the fact that all three of these films are quite different. Che offered a sprawling biopic – or two – while The Girlfriend Experience provided a smaller, more character-based glimpse into society. (By the way, I know Che debuted in 2008, but it didn’t get broad distribution until early 2009.)
Soderbergh went broader with The Informant!, the third of the bunch. Set in the early 1990s, Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) claims that there’s a spy at the agricultural conglomerate where he works. When he alerts his bosses, they pull in the FBI to investigate.
Whitacre grasps this opportunity to become whistle-blower. He tells agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) about price-fixing activities in his industry. This submerges him into an investigation that may or may not focus on the truth; Whitacre’s revelations/stories change on a day by day basic as he fancies himself populist hero.
Essentially a spoof of 1970s dramas, Informant! becomes more than simple parody for one reason: it’s really based on actual incidents. Sure, the film starts with a disclaimer about historical liberties, but Fargo opens with a line that claims it’s based on real events, and that was a lie, so I thought Soderbergh was just messing with us.
Nope – Informant! sticks pretty closely to the truth. Sure, it includes some alterations and composites like most other flicks of this sort, but it gets much of the history correct. Granted, one assumes the real Whitacre wasn’t quite as big a boob as the movie’s version, but who knows?
Soderbergh’s decision to provide a comedic take on a serious real-life scandal proves effective. Even if Informant! had no connection to actual events, it’d still be a fun film. The added bite that comes from its “based on a true story” side makes it even more entertaining; it’s rather interesting to see material of this sort treated in such an irreverent way.
As I noted, I find it hard to believe the real Whitacre was as delusional and moronic as the movie’s version, but in Damon’s hands, he becomes a consistent delight. On the surface, Damon seems wrong for the part, as Whitacre feels more like a William H. Macy kind of character. Nonetheless, Damon delivers a solid performance. He captures the character’s vapidity and overwhelming sense of self-righteousness. He’s almost a Forrest Gump type; sure, he’s brighter, but his apparently total lack of cynicism and utter inability to view a world outside of himself makes him a simple soul.
Though a more complicated one than Gump because Whitacre constantly schemes. He’s a superficial man, as demonstrated by the internal commentary that accompanies the film. I often don’t like voiceover, but Informant! uses that technique to depict the character’s absolute absence of introspection. No matter what happens around him, he just thinks banal thoughts about trivia and superficial elements. The voiceover does a lot to tell us who Whitacre is.
The nature of Whitacre’s character also makes Informant! unusual because of the way it twists the usual “whistle-blower” drama. As in the Grisham tales he enjoys, Whitacre views himself as a major hero who will gain accolades for his role in the exposure of wrongdoing. He’s so out of touch that he believes he will still work at his company even after all the legal shenanigans.
While other movies depict whistle-blowers who act for the greater good, we see over and over that Whitacre does it for himself. He does everything for himself, as he constantly lies to make himself look better or come out on top. As played by Damon, Whitacre doesn’t expose a whit of cynicism; he really feels like the good guy who’s justified in everything he does, even when he steals millions of dollars.
Soderbergh’s choice to play the film as a comedy relates to the inherent absurdity of the actual situation. What kind of moron volunteers to actively cooperate with an FBI investigation while he also embezzles millions of dollars? A deluded moron, obviously, and in the face of Whitacre’s idiocy, Soderbergh has no choice but to play things for laughs.
And laughs he delivers, though the film occasionally hits things a little too on the nose. This especially relates to the film’s cartoony score. The music would be better suited for Funniest Home Videos footage of squirrels who fall out of trees or dogs who rollerskate; complete with kazoos, the score telegraphs the film’s comedy a bit too much. No, the movie didn’t need a truly serious soundtrack, but something less goofy would’ve been better.
Even with that misstep, though, The Informant! provides a good piece of entertainment. It turns real-life corporate drama into absurd comedy and does so with panache.