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Monday, September 21, 2009

Review: The Informant! (2009)

* * * 1/2

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon

The Informant! tells a story so ludicrous that it has to be true because no one would make up something so absurd. In it an executive at a Fortune 500 company becomes an FBI informant, gathering evidence of a global price fixing scheme, and is rewarded by ending up with a prison sentence 6 years longer than the superiors he exposed. Of course, there is the small fact that while he was helping the FBI, he was also embezzling from the company to the tune about $9 million dollars. Like I said, you’d never believe it if it wasn’t true.

It’s all about corn. Corn makes the economy go round and Mark Whitacre’s (Matt Damon) company, ADM, is in the corn business. When the company starts losing somewhere in the neighbourhood of $7 million a month due to a virus affecting the product, Whitacre is tasked with fixing it, which becomes considerably difficult when he starts receiving phone calls from a Japanese competitor who knows all about the problem and demands $10 million to keep quiet about it. ADM decides to bring the FBI in to investigate this extortion only to abruptly pull the plug when they learn that the agency has tapped Whitacre’s private phone – which he uses to arrange the price fixing scheme – in addition to his business line. What the executives couldn’t have anticipated was that Whitacre would have a crisis of conscience and decide to confess about the price fixing anyway.

For two and a half years Whitacre records conversations and meetings, helping the FBI build a case against the company. When the raid finally goes down, however, the Feds realize that Whitacre may not be the best person to have on their side. He’d tipped a few people off about the raid beforehand, for one thing – important allies, he insists – and then there’s the small matter of some money he’s taken in the form of kickbacks – a figure which starts out as $2.5 million and steadily grows to $9 million... and may actually have been as much as $11.5 million. Suddenly the federal investigation shifts away from ADM and towards Whitacker who is, as his wife points out, much easier to take down than an entire corporation. He’s done a bad thing but should he really be considered the bad guy?

Damon plays Whitacre as a veritable Jeckyll and Hyde, a man who both is and is not what he seems to be. He’s a narcissist who buys completely into his own lies and flounders whenever he’s called out, partly because he’s managed to divorce himself from his own actions. At one point he forges a letter from his psychiatrist to back up his claims that the FBI investigation has deeply damaged his psyche. We watch him cut and paste the letterhead and the doctor’s signature to a letter he’s written himself and yet we believe that he’s shocked at the news that it’s a forgery. Damon is able to sell the idea that Whitacre is so fully invested in his lies that he believes them to be the truth even as he’s constructing them. He should not be a likeable person and yet he kind of is because Damon gives him an affable, everyman kind of quality. Of course it also helps that the film makes him out to be a bit of a buffoon, which has the effect of making him seem relatively harmless.

I think it’s a gamble in the current economic climate to take story of capitalistic greed and turn it into a comedy, but Steven Soderbergh makes it work. Given the general absurdity of Whitacre's situation, I suppose that making this into a straight drama would be somewhat difficult. Certainly this could have been an angry film about how the little guy (relatively speaking) becomes the fall guy while the giant corporation carries on unscathed, but that would have necessitated toning down Whitacre by large degrees. He calls himself 0014 because he's "twice as smart as 007" but this spy story has less in common with James Bond than Austin Powers - an allusion I think Soderbergh is deliberately drawing through his use of 60s style bubble lettering in the titles that indicate time and place. This is ultimately a joyful film and very funny even when it starts to take on increasingly dark undertones. It's a great time at the movies.


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Lisa said...

I am a big fan of Matt Damon and I look forward to seeing the movie.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

So was this better than Tom Ripley...I like Matt. He's not my fave actor but I'd like for him to get some clout.

miyaz said...

I saw this movie and it was quite good, how ever I don’t think FBI agent’s gets more hilarious as it seems on the movie and it was some what far away from the book adoption. How ever the movie gets more comedy and it been release for its judgment in my point of view I give four out of five for this movie.



Norma Desmond said...

@Andrew: I think Damon's performance here is better than The Talented Mr. Ripley. He's definitely maturing into a very fine actor.

@miyaz: I've never read the book, but thought the movie was very funny.

M. Carter @ the Movies said...

Matt Damon never appealed much to me until recent years, and now his career is on fire. He does amazing things in his portrayal of Mark Whitacre, a difficult part that requires such range. (This guy was, after, all many different people rolled into one body.) He conveys his intelligence and his cockiness but also makes Whitacre a sympathetic character, someone deeply troubled who can't and won't ask for help. Damon deserves every word of praise he's received for his role in "The Informant!"

Oh, and I thought Joel McHale was quite good as well, especially considering his major acting parts to this point have been on "Talk Soup" and "Community."

Dan O. said...

Can’t argue that Mark Whitacre is goofy and kind of dull. But the crazy thing is that that’s why I like him — he’s an average guy living an average life, and he’s bored with it. So he creates these wild, crazy yarns, then he can’t figure them out. His inner monologues are hilarious, but they’re also sad. I think Damon does an excellent job of showing humanity in a very frustrating character.