The movie is based on the true story of Mark Whitacre, a fairly high-ranking executive at Archer Daniels Midland. When he's unfairly given the squeeze for something that's beyond his control, Whitaker decides to lie his way out of it, claiming that a competitor is, essentially, sabotaging their production of ethanol and trying to extort money from the company in order to provide the solution. Corporation bigwigs panic and bring in the FBI to investigate. Agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) tap his phone, hoping to gather evidence. Once again finding himself in a tight spot, he drops the bomb that Archer Daniels Midland is participating in a global price-fixing scheme. Shepard and Herndon convince Whitacre to wear a wire as part of a sting operation, only to discover that nothing is what it seems with him. The guy changes his story, manipulates facts, and seems to think he's leagues smarter than anyone else.
Pretty amazing tale, huh? Even more amazing is what happened to Mark Whitacre, although I won't spoil it here, even if it is part of the public record. Soderbergh clearly knows that there's a "typical" way to handle a story like this. Michael Mann, for example, made an intense drama out of another true whistleblower's story with 1999’s The Insider. Understandably not wanting to do the obvious, Soderbergh has given The Informant! all the gloss and sheen of a 1960's spy caper. The exclamation point in the film's title is there to let you know that, while inherently serious, the story will be treated as light comedy.
It doesn't stop there, either. Composer Marvin Hamlisch has been brought on to write the movie's score. Do you know what has he been asked to turn in? Nothing less than a jaunty 60's-ish style of music that reminded me of "Soul Bossa Nova" (a.k.a. the Austin Powers theme) or the theme from "The Newlywed Game." Yeah, it's that kind of music. If you guessed that it becomes highly intrusive and annoying after a spell, pat yourself on the back.
And if you're taking a naturally dramatic story and playing it as comedy, what could be better than hiring a bunch of talented comedic actors to play it straight? Joel McHale, Tom and Dick Smothers, Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins - they all appear here playing characters who are not funny and are not given anything remotely funny to say or do. It's almost as though Soderbergh is nudging us in the ribs, saying, "Comedians subverting your expectations. Get it?"
Well, I do get it - and hell, I even respect it. That said, it doesn't work. An admirable attempt, yes, but not a successful one. I know what the point is: Mark Whitacre was very likely mentally unstable and he made a complete mess of the FBI's case by trying to outsmart everyone else. Soderbergh is trying to create a sense of Whitacre's mindset and frame of reference. (When someone asks why he chooses to call himself "0014," Whitacre responds, "because I'm twice as smart as 007.") Whitacre’s voiceovers also are used to accomplish this. Another character will begin saying something serious, then the soundtrack switches to a stream-of-consciousness voiceover wherein Whitacre mulls over things that are completely irrelevant to anything else.
Maybe I would have tolerated this approach more were The Informant! not so frustratingly structured. This is one of those movies where things happen and you don’t understand why until they’re explained to you two or three scenes later. Rather than getting absorbed in the story, I was constantly trying to play catch-up. That alone was irritating, so when the cheesy music and the blathering voiceovers were added to the mix, it was impossible for me not to emotionally check out.
To his credit, Matt Damon is fantastic. He’s packed on some weight for the role, but more importantly, he’s created this weird, elusive, shady character. He’s by far the best thing about The Informant! with Joel McHale coming in a close second. No, he doesn’t get to be funny here; even so, McHale nails Herndon’s growing lack of patience with Whitacre.
Completely separated from ideas of entertainment, I appreciate the dichotomy between material and tone that The Informant! gives us. Soderbergh has made an artistically justified choice, despite it not really being all that effective. The film is worth catching on DVD as an example of directorial technique, for those interested in studying such things. But if you’re seeking something that’s fun or dramatically compelling, a movie that browbeats you with its aren’t we clever? wacky style is not guaranteed to do the trick, exclamation points be damned.
( out of four)
The Informant! arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray on Feb. 23 in widescreen format. Sound and picture quality are tops.
The sole DVD bonus feature is a selection of deleted scenes, running about six minutes. The best of the scenes finds Mark further aggravating Shepard and Herndon in a hotel room and being told that he doesn't need to narrate while wearing a wire.
The Informant! is rated R for language! The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes!
Return to The Aisle Seat