Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Informant!

"Double Agent + Half-Wit = ???!"
"Greed is Good"/"Ignorance is Bliss"

A direct descendant from "This American Life,"* a screenwriter heard the story on the American Public Media radio program and thought "This would make a great movie."

Well, for the most part.

"The Informant!" is complicated—about an upper-level management director for Archer Daniels Midland, who, through a series of security concerns, becomes an FBI informant in an investigation into ADM's price-fixing practices. That director, Marc Whitacre (Matt Damon) is a normal middle-American professional, orphaned since six, who's risen in the ranks of corporate America through sheer eager-beaverness, a naive cunning, and a gambler's instinct.

He's the perfect candidate for amateur skull-duggery—objectively smart enough to stay ahead of the game and
ego-centric enough to buy into the glamour of the intrigue—he basks in being a star witness and is only too happy to please, lying with the lions while lying like a rug.

Steven Soderbergh pulls a nifty trick here taking a very complicated story and keeping the details spinning, like so many plates on sticks. Just like that Ed Sullivan Show staple, the most difficult part is building the momentum to achieve the balance and the film starts stuttering, wobbling until it finds its center. Once it does, it becomes clear that the template Soderbergh is using is from his breezy "Ocean's" movies—lots of little con's disguising the big con. There is, however, no satisfying feeling of being part of the gag—of seeing the magic happen, or as it's labelled in Christopher Nolan's magic movie "The Prestige." One is left a bit unsatisfied that it all hinges, not on success, but on failing.

The acting is top-notch.
Damon's performance slowly unravels in a series of dunce-like mis-steps and comedic ditherings and dissemblings that are sly and subtle—a whistle-blower blowing so loud so as to distract from the alarms down the street. As the FBI masters, Scott Bakula is passionately one-note as the guy who believes, while Joel McHale plays the agent who can't believe with a brilliant series of dead-pan reactions of muted horror whenever the investigation turns...complicated. At a certain point, Soderbergh starts replacing actors with comedians (Patton Oswalt, Samantha Albert, Jimmy Brogan, Bob Zany, Candy Clark, Frank Welker, both Smothers Brothers) who excel at turning conflict into comedy.

Ultimately, one is left with more questions than certainty, your footing unsure about what is true and untrue (the movie sticks scrupulously to the facts of the case) but at some point you have to look at the entire film as a con game—a caper that takes you in, making it as unscrupulous a movie as
Orson Welles' "F for Fake." But even more broadly, it plays fast and loose with the implicit agreement of trust between film-maker and audience.

"The Informant!" is a Matinee, but it should be a Rental (mostly because you'll want to watch it again immediately).

* The Episode is 168 "The Fix Is In," although it has been repeated a few times, including the week "The Informant!" opened.

No comments: