While perusing the Laemmle’s cinematic offerings for fall 2009, I was not at all surprised to find myself most excited for dumb, rip-roaring fare like Jennifer’s Body. I have come to detest cleverness in movies; I have been drowning in it since the meteoric rise of the Indie genre (read: Juno, Garden State) and am stuck coughing it up as these witty young films keep breeding. So, Steven Soderbergh got off on the wrong foot with me when he chose to punctuate the title of his new film, The Informant! I love me some Matt Damon, but I had already made up my mind. This “clever” thing has knocked quality out of the water.
Obviously I need to chill out, because The Informant! was exciting, whimsical, and managed to be endlessly amusing without cracking a single joke. The intricate and well-crafted dialogue and character development did all the work, transforming bland office-based subject matter into a delightfully comic psycho-thriller.
Soderbergh has classically spread a thick veneer of action over his smart scripts, and here he trims away the fat to reveal an ingenious pastiche of inner monologue and snappy repartee.
Beneath a cheesy haircut and thirty extra pounds, Matt Damon transforms into an almost unclassifiable kind of corporate nerd. He plays Mark Whitacre, a kooky and enthusiastic lump of a guy who works a mildly important job at an American agribusiness corporation. When Japanese competitors infiltrate the system and Mark discovers evidence of an international price-fixing scheme, he turns double agent for the FBI. He delights in the mission, initially pleasing the two agents assigned to the case with his childlike devotion and agreeability. However, the complex conspiracy begins to unravel as Mark slowly reveals his penchant for elaborate storytelling—the FBI soon realizes that their informant may in fact be living a strange and alarming psychological fantasy.
This plot could be taken in a few directions–docu-drama, even horror–but Soderbergh and his team strike a perfect note of oddball intelligence. The film’s construction defies film logic, layering Mark’s stream of consciousness voice-overs with reality so that it is hard to decide whether he is smarter than his coworkers and wife, or delusional. For example, he smugly refers to himself as “Agent 0014–twice as smart as James Bond.” The most fascinating result of this simultaneous narrative is an elimination of truth from events that occur right in front of the viewer’s eyes. Considering that The Informant! is based on a true story, the unconventional storytelling and subsequent manipulation of our minds is a real achievement of both writing and editing.
A few gripes, however: Mark’s wife (Melanie Lynskey) is a likeable character but serves only as a catalyst to his bizarre behavior. Their relationship is simple: she encourages him like a fond parent and is never quite aware of his mental machinations. And he does not truly confide in her, although their marriage is loving and stable. It made me wonder if she is only compatible with his folksy and nave facade and not his true, more erratic inner self. Additionally, the extremely twisted nature of the story and Mark’s internal logic can sometimes make for some head-scratching and mild exasperation. It gave me the same feeling as being in class with someone who is sharply pursuing an interesting point, and then throws in an irrelevant and unintelligible comment about the duality of mankind. In this case, cleverness did not piss me off but simply confused me.
The look of the film is also worth mentioning. The color scheme is muted without being dull, like a 70s Polaroid, and has the urgency and vibrancy that not every business caper can boast. Marvin Hamlisch’s original soundtrack is kitschy but exciting, evoking the image of a super-spy that Mark has happily constructed.
The Informant! is a strange and bubbly experience, bolstered by true wit and juvenile glee. It certainly polishes the image of agribusiness to a smooth and sexy shine, and is a fine vehicle for Damon’s precise character development and typical expressiveness. For all fans of the corporate crime genre and slick humor, this flick is worth an evening–and that exclamation point(!).