Who is Steven Soderberg? Is he a slick technician who crafts smart, tight studio pictures (see “Out of Sight” and “Ocean’s 11”)? Or is he an indie Maverick playing by his own rules (see “Che” or “The Girlfriend Experience”)? His new picture, “The Informant!” seems to make an argument for both. Wildly original this film is Soderberg at his best, bitingly hilarious and razor sharp. This isn’t a high stakes, tension filled pot boiler like Michael Mann’s “The Insider,” this is something far stranger, and by virtue of that, smarter.
“The Informant!” follows Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a real life whistle blower, as he works with the FBI to take down his employer, ADM, a lysine manufacturer. If that doesn’t sound too glamorous it shouldn’t. At first Mark seems like the good guy, going to the FBI to inform on anti-trust infractions that his company is involved in, but as he gets deeper and deeper his personality unravels revealing the complexity of lies and greed that bubbles just under the surface of his crushing banality. As his stories to the Feds crumble under the pressure of the truth his embezzlement comes to light, and he becomes the focus of the U.S. Attorney’s wrath.
The script by Scott Z. Burns is based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald of the same name minus the ingenious exclamation point. The story is basic enough, but it is the nuances of the script that shine through in the film. Both tragic and funny the film’s best bits in both arenas are in Whitacre’s voice over. The apparent non-sequiturs are laugh out loud funny until pondered, and then take on significance to the larger picture, which is indispensable.
Soderberg’s films are often endued with a sense of distance from the main character, and here it exists, but it is a credit to his direction that the audience feels that distance from Whitacre while listening to his innermost thoughts. From the beginning Whitacre is so deluded that we aren’t aware of any of it until he chooses to reveal it, both to us and himself.
Soderberg uses Whitacre as an analog for all things bad in big business. While the real life Whitacre may not be as extreme here he is portrayed as a bumbling buffoon cursed with Adult ADD and bipolar disorder (the latter established by many doctors in reality). The incessant ramblings of the voice over/internal monologue throughout the film are not only terribly funny they go to illustrate the supposed mind of a power player in the global business hierarchy. Though Whitacre holds two PhDs and is the President of the Bio-Chemical Division of ADM the thoughts rolling around his noggin are nothing more that boring or even stupid drivel. As evidenced by Whitacre and his fellow white collar criminals Mick Andreas (Tom Papa) and Tom Wilson (Rick Overton) Soderberg’s business man is well educated dope, and while there is definitely a conspiracy of big business to defraud the public it isn’t as nefarious or deeply textured as most conspiracy-theorist would like to believe. Here it is just fools making it up as the go along, and rather poorly at that.
Matt Damon gives an Oscar worthy performance in this role, eschewing that Jason Bourne facade for the far more complex shlub that is Mark Whitacre. His goofy enthusiasm in the role reminds us that Damon’s ample talents often go to waste with kicks and punches. In this film his Whitacre has so much depth it is hard to believe that there is actually an actor under that mustache. From the beginning we fall in love with this doofus, and as he betrays our trust in him time and time again it is impossible to be angry with him, but rather sad for his delusion. Damon’s attention to detail spans from the cringe-worthy grin to the affected walk, all of which blends together seamlessly to create a portrait of a man with all the answers, but no idea as to the questions.
With films like “Traffic” and “Solaris” Soderberg has never been one to shy away from risks. In “The Informant!” his biggest was the use of veteran composer Marvin Hamlish’s score. Truly inspired is the only way to describe the choice to hearken back to Hamlish’s early days with hints of his work from “The Sting” and “Bananas.” His up beat score contrasts with the completely unglamorous world Whitacre inhabits, and the theatrical, almost vaudevillian tone it invokes heightens the film’s tragedy and comedy in ways that words can’t describe. With any other music this movie could have been a failure, but with it the film is a soaring success.
Along side solid performances from Scott Bakula as the sympathetic FBI Agent Brian Shepard and Melanie Lynskey as Whitacre’s loving wife Ginger strange comedic cameos pop up and add to the farcical feel of the film. There are interesting choices from stand-up comedians Patton Oswald and Paul F. Thompkins, to sitcom stars Tony Hale and Scott Adsit, to comedy legends Tom and Dick Smothers. Most sit in positions of authority over Whitacre perhaps lending to the idea that above all of the corporate malfeasance going on in the world one can only laugh.
As usual Soderberg directs as well as shoots the film with his Peter Andrews handle. Using the Red One video camera for his second release this year (“The Girlfriend Experience” the other) his colorful, yet bland photography melds well with the subject matter. Relying a lot on wide shots to tell the story is one of Soderberg/Andrew’s hallmarks and they are here in spades. He gives depth to the cold conference rooms and harshly lighted offices using the wide angles to show the walls that enclose the characters in their prisons of greed.
Made on what today is a shoestring budget (reported $21 million) Soderberg pulls out a diamond in the rough. This under stated picture should have Oscar written all over it, but the Academy might overlook it due to the early release date and the lack of hype. Soderberg might also suffer from his insistence on working outside the dying studio system, but if voters have a long enough memory hopefully this film will get the recognition it is due.
El Luchador Rating: 5 out of 5 (5 out of 5)
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)