Eugene Weekly : Movies : 9.24.09


White Knight, White Heat
The return of Steven Soderbergh
by Jason Blair

THE INFORMANT!: Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Scott Z. Burns, based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald. Cinematography by Soderbergh. Music, Marvin Hamlisch. Starring Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale and Melanie Lynskey. Warner Bros., 2009. R. 108 minutes.

Sterling Morrison, the bassist for the Velvet Underground, once said, “We may have been dragging each other off a cliff, but we were going in the same direction.” Mutual destruction, however profitable or creative, is at the heart of The Informant!, an exceptional dark comedy about a corporate whistleblower who stumbles on the road to glory. Based upon actual events, The Informant! is the story of biochemist Mark Whitacre, a brilliant but self-deluded family man who, despite taking down corporate titan Archer Daniels Midland, served a prison sentence longer than the men he helped convict. He is remembered not as a hero but as a goofball and tattle-tale. Although he single-handedly exposed a global price-fixing conspiracy, netting the government record antitrust penalties, he so confounded the FBI with loopy fabrications that eventually he became their target. Until the bitter end, his motto was “It feels good to talk!”

Matt Damon in The Informant!

To his credit, director Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s Eleven) stages The Informant! as a light, zany romp, a comedy with mild thriller elements set amidst the tall corn of Decatur, Ill. For a while, it’s a straight story, crisply told: Eccentric nerd (played by Damon) turns insider, taking down the fat cats behind high fructose corn syrup. But there’s something off about Whitacre’s offbeat charm, something stirring in his seemingly disconnected (but increasingly relevant) interior monologues, which cover subjects from polar bears to Japanese underwear. Simply put, Whitacre isn’t completely there. Compare this to Michael Mann’s The Insider, a worthy film which nevertheless feels aggressive by comparison, all anger to The Informant’s repressed hidden depths. And that’s the point: The self-doubt at the heart of both films is so subverted in The Informant!, so butterfly-light in the character of Whitacre — a guy who can keep neither his mouth shut nor his story straight — that the film’s soft touch is both highly deceptive and a nearly perfect format in which to present such massive fraud. Or frauds, if you will. The tone may be light, but as subjects go, it doesn’t get any heavier.

Damon, who gained 30 pounds for The Informant!, is as chatty and energetic as he’s ever been. He’s displayed a nimble feel for comedy before, primarily in the Ocean’s films, but usually as a mumbling introvert. Donning a hairpiece and a cop moustache, both of which make him oddly impotent, Damon lets it rip and scores big in The Informant!. His FBI contact is Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula), a gentle but committed agent who, as Whitacre’s handler, suffers death by a thousand cuts. Bakula, for all I can tell, time-traveled directly from his Quantum Leap days; he now resembles a young Leonard Nimoy, a fitting likeness given his effective, dry-as-toast performance. The Informant! even gets the little things right, like the exclamation point in the title (which doesn’t appear in Kurt Eichenwald’s book), the zippy, exuberant music and the casting of stand-up comics like Patton Oswalt and Joel McHale as seasoned FBI agents. I particularly enjoyed Melanie Lynskey (Away We Go) as Whitacre’s wife, the gummy but solid Ginger. Lynskey is slated to appear in two more films this year, and I’m convinced she’s here to stay. She’s just one reason The Informant! is a refreshingly quiet film that manages to speak volumes.