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Friday, September 25, 2009
  Review: The Informant!
I went into The Informant! with a pretty substantial bias, that director Steven Soderbergh is probably, if I had to pick just one, my favorite director. I haven’t seen literally all of his movies (I missed a few of his early ones, I somehow have still managed to not see Erin Brockovich, and I haven’t gotten around to his more recent indie experiments Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience), but I’ve seen most of them, and I love just about all of them (even Solaris!). The knack he shows for comedy in the Ocean’s movies and Out of Sight (which may be my favorite of his films, with the possible exception of The Limey) made me really excited about Soderbergh re-teaming with Matt Damon to tell the true story of Mark Whitacre, a senior exec at food giant Archer Daniels Midland who helped the FBI bust an ostensible price-fixing scheme. Everything I saw from the movie, from the ridiculous poster (seriously, tell me that thing isn’t genius) to Damon’s awesome mustache and paunch to the exclamation point in the title had me stoked. And credit to Soderbergh and Damon, they did not let me down.

But let’s get the basics out of the way early: The Informant! is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and Damon definitely deserves an Oscar nomination at the very least for his work as Whitacre. The movie is astonishingly funny in an absurd, Coen brothers way, and there’s also a lot of wonderfully subtle little things going on as well. While there’s certainly a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in The Informant!, most of the humor comes from the tone and the performances, none of which are “wacky” or what you’d normally associate with a comedy. (Even Damon’s sillier moments, many of which are on display in the ads and trailers, don’t come off as “jokey” in the context of the movie, but he’s still a non-stop riot.) Soderbergh and his cast play everything fairly straight, and let the comedy flow from that.

But as much credit as Soderbergh and his cast deserve for how funny The Informant! is, the movie has a secret weapon that I wasn’t expecting at all: Marvin Hamlisch. Soderbergh tapped the legendary Hollywood composer to do the score for The Informant! (which, despite being set mostly in the early ‘90s, has a definite ‘70s vibe), and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where the music contributed so much to the comedy. And I don’t mean funny cues of pop songs, but the score itself. Hamlisch never devolves into making fun of the action we’re seeing on screen (though he comes close with some flourishes that echo the James Bond theme in a couple of moments where Whitacre’s really getting into acting like a spy), but his music adds a lot to the absurd, tonal comedy that Soderbergh creates. I don’t remember the last time a movie’s score had me in stitches.

I don’t want to give too much away about where The Informant! eventually goes (even though it's based on a true story), but the further along Whitacre gets into his work with the FBI, the more red flags about Whitacre himself start popping up, and his story – and Whitacre himself – eventually falls apart. And that’s where the movie blew me away; without really changing too much in terms of pacing or style, Soderbergh shifts the tone of the movie in the final act, and it sort of stops being funny and starts being sad and weird (and I mean that in the best possible way). And that’s also where I began to appreciate the work Damon was doing; he manages to show Whitacre slowly coming apart without really changing his performance too drastically. But as the context for Whitacre’s increasingly erratic behavior becomes clear, so does the depth of the character Damon has created in Whitacre. It’s pretty amazing stuff, and it’ll be a shame if Damon being so damn funny works against his chances of getting some sort of awards recognition.

The other performance I absolutely have to mention is Scott Bakula as Whitacre’s FBI handler. I was never into Quantum Leap and I couldn’t have been less interested in Star Trek: Enterprise, but sweet Christmas is he brilliant in here. The amount of information – often hilarious information – Bakula conveys with just a subtle change of his expression had me amazed. And the dynamic between his character and Whitacre – he’s simultaneously an adversarial authority figure to Whitacre as well as being his confidant and something almost approaching a friend – is like almost nothing I’ve seen before. What a wonderful career jump-start The Informant! could be for Bakula; I’d happily watch him in just about anything after this.

Overall, I loved The Informant!, but I’m not sure how much of that was based in the fact that Soderbergh’s movies just seem to turn my crank. Whatever the reason, it’s funny and strange and sad and delightful, and I recommend it highly.


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