' Cinema Romantico: The Informant!

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Informant!

I'm not sure Steven Soderbergh has it in him to make a movie prescribing to the label Straight Forward. He is always pushing the concept of his movies to the extreme. Based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald "The Informant!" is like "The Insider" Meets "Shattered Glass" as directed by Alexander Payne.

Both the book and movie are about Mark Whitacre (pronounced Whitaker), played in an award worthy performance by Matt Damon, going Method by packing on the pounds, a biochemist turned vice president at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), a central Illinois agricultural firm. As the film opens Whitacre, a consummate family man, learns a saboteur has contaminated ADM's product. The FBI is called in to investigate and at the request of his wife (Melanie Lynskey) Mark decides to tell the truth and nothing but the truth - that is, ADM is engaged in a massive price fixing scheme with its overseas competitors. Before any time at all Mark, in assistance with two FBI agents Shephard and Herndon (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale), is willingly wearing a wire during conversations with top execs and assisting in videotaping clandestine meetings. He wants to do "the right thing" he says over and over and when another member of the FBI wonders why this guy came forward so quickly, what drug he's putting up his nose, or what mistress he's trying to fund, Shephard and Herndon display a photo of Mark and his family.

But is he doing the right thing? Goodness, there is so much more lurking beneath the surface of "The Informant!" that I will be cautious as I do not wish to reveal more than is necessary. The expertly crafted screenplay (by Scott Z. Burns) methodically peels back layer after layer leaving characters and audience members all dumbfounded simultaneously. One moment in a Chinese restaurant is literally a jaw dropper. And consider the voiceover in "The Informant!", a lesson plan in how to present this device as it eventually reveals itself to be a very vital cog so long as you have the patience to wait for it.

If this film had chosen to be a character study it might just have been something special. The script never really passes judgement on Mark and never asks the audience to pass judgement, it offers the facts of the case and lets you decide for yourself who he is, what is real and what is not, and in the end there are as many, if not more, questions than answers. Refreshing, if you ask me. Except it's Steven Soderbergh and a simple character study with Steven Soderbergh ain't ever gonna happen.

The film is set in the 90's but Soderbergh seems insistent on turning "The Informant!" one of those crime capers from the 70's. Or, more accurately, turning it into a comment on one of those crime capers from the 70's. The lighting scheme makes it feel as if the nearly the entire film took place in a dingy Dulles Airport cocktail lounge where Washington Post reporters smoked and drank scotch. (Does anyone else ever wish Soderbergh would guest direct, say, a crappy CBS sitcom? "Did you see that show with David Puddy and David Spade the other night? What was up with the black and white? Who wants to watch German Expressionism on a Monday night?") Plus the film's primary music score comes across like a parody. To this reviewer it often felt at distinct odds with the events taking place onscreen.

Perhaps Soderbergh was afraid the character of Mark Whitacre would never earn our empathy as things progressed and wanted to head us off at the pass. But how would we know? Despite the disgusting behavior of the real life journalist in "Shattered Glass" you were so conflicted at the end it was truly an emotional experience. But "The Informant!" too often feels like an exercise in craft despite the authenticity offered in Damon's portrayal.

I can't help but compare Soderbergh to Jeff Tweedy, the founder and frontman of the band Wilco. A record executive once accused Tweedy of "sabotag(ing)" his own records. He said: "As soon as you get to that chorus with the big hook and the big payoff, (Tweedy) would throw a wrench in the spokes, because he hated formulas more than anything. I loved him for that, and I hated him for that." "The Informant!" really seems as if Soderbergh saw what was happening and decided to throw a wrench in the spokes. "My film? Straight Forward! Ha! Take this!"

Sabotage is too strong a word because there is still a lot to like about "The Informant!" and he probably never would have made it at all if he couldn't make it his way. I love him for that, and I hate him for that.

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