TIFF09 REVIEW: The Informant! [2009]

“Wow! What a ride; lot’s of memories”

Leave it to a director like Steven Soderbergh to film an epic six-hour look into the life of Ché Guevara at war, follow that up with a low-budget indie about a prostitute, and then throw everyone for a loop with the dark, off-beat comedy The Informant! When I first started hearing about the project, I anticipated a serious investigative film about a company’s price fixing scandal. Based on a novel by Kurt Eichenwald, called by many a thriller, the tale shows us how a rising company man, Mark Whitacre, became the highest-level employee to ever turn whistleblower. Written by a journalist, hailed as one of the best nonfiction books of its decade, and using the inner workings of the FBI as a subject, one would never think the cinematic adaptation would be so goofy and uproariously funny. But then you look at the posters and the trailer and Matt Damon hamming it up—the title has an exclamation point at the end after all—and you wonder if Soderbergh hijacked the story or actually stuck to the facts. With a disclaimer flashing before the opening, saying things have been changed from real life, “So there,” you know the ride will be full of hilarity.

The beauty of the film is Matt Damon without question. Starring in so many action/dramas of late, it’s great to see him going the comedy route. The guy was in Kevin Smith films and hammed it up in the Ocean’s movies as well, but here he has center stage to show the kind of chops he has in the genre. With hair resembling a bad toupee and a pedophilic moustache, his Whitacre is mid-90s businessman elite, only with a conscience … sort of. A lover of crime films and courtroom dramas, he begins to live his life as though he is in one himself. When describing what is going on to the FBI at one point, he breaks out with the line, “It’s like “Rising Sun”, the Crichton novel,” or during a voiceover he begins to compare everything to “The Firm”. He sees that his company, a corn producer and therefore having its hands in pretty much every consumer product on the market, is criminally involved with competitors to fix prices and steal from their respective publics. Wanting to be the hero and save the day—hopefully with an endgame of being the only person left and in effect handed the company—he decides to fabricate a story to get the FBI in his sights and then pounces, taking part in a two year sting operation to bring Archer Daniels Midland down.

Soderbergh was live and in person at the TIFF screening I attended and, after being introduced as having been there twenty years previous with his debut feature, said, “[There’s] no sex, no videotapes, but enough lies to last another twenty years.” And boy was he right. As the movie progresses, you not only become aware of the lies being told in the company, but also the information Whitacre himself is withholding from the FBI, then from his lawyers, and inevitably from everyone. By the end, you can’t help but wonder what exactly was the truth—the whole thing is just one big lie. I would love to know what the real Whitacre thinks about this representation. Does he enjoy the exaggerated caricature? Does he hate it because the imbecilic nature at the core of Damon’s role hits too close to home? The activities portrayed are so off the wall and zany that I have to believe screenwriter Scott Z. Burns and Soderbergh just used the outline of fact and made it completely their own. My only complaint would be that it goes maybe ten to twenty minutes too long, finding a repetition that soon becomes obvious and lacking of the witty charm of the start.

With a cast of familiar faces and even some comic greats—The Smothers Brothers—it is still Damon that shines above all. His delivery is priceless and his facial expressions genuinely childlike in their enthusiasm. The entire film has him playing this game, unaware of how deep he was getting in and unaware that his extracurricular activities, to be exposed towards the end, made him a hypocrite. As long as he is the center of attention, being the man in the white hat taking down the bad guys with his FBI cohorts in tow, nothing else matters. Speaking of the agents, how great is it seeing Scott Bakula sinking his teeth into a lengthy role again? His straightman to Damon’s goof could not be played more perfectly. And then you get Joel McHale of “The Soup” fame to play the most serious government agent in the world? It’s just Soderbergh having fun with preconceptions, actually casting many comics in serious roles while Jason Bourne himself schlubs around with a permanent cheesy smile plastered on his face.

What transpires is funny enough, if just due to the fact a huge criminal investigation is occurring with a moron at its center, risking exposure every second. So excited that he is starring in his own version of all the sitcom television and pulp Hollywood movies he enjoys, the wonderment of having his own tape recorder hidden in his briefcase necessitates him to show someone how cool it is. He is 0014 after all, twice as smart as 007. But what works even better than the actual story is his mind itself. The epitome of Attention Deficit Disorder, Mark Whitacre loses his train of thought on a regular basis. At first you think you may be missing something as a character responds to a question and Damon’s voiceover drowns it out. While important information is being relayed, all we hear are the ramblings of a crazy man, the most mundane things popping into his head as he smiles and nods. Some of these one-liners are so great you almost watch what’s happening to get to the next tangent his brain wanders off towards.

So, whether or not the film itself is an accurate portrayal of the subject matter it’s based on is a moot point. The real subject becomes finding out what will happen to Whitacre when the dust settles. Naïve to the core, we all know he is due a wakeup call at some point, even if his FBI handlers think he is the bravest man in America doing it all because he has a wife and kids and a sense of moral responsibility. If only they knew he just did it for the rush of excitement and because he couldn’t think past step number one. Why comprehend that unearthing all the wheelings and dealings of a company he held a high position with could cost him his career when you can just enjoy the present and have fun living a duplicitous life? Do not feel sorry for him and do not question his motives—he really doesn’t have any. Just take a seat and be ready to laugh hard because Soderbergh has crafted a comedic gem that should hopefully rake in the money so he can finance his next indie. You have to love a director that can work, with success, in both spheres of the industry, and who continues to do so without fail.

The Informant! 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] MATT DAMON stars as Mark Whitacre in Warner Bros. Pictures’, Participant Media’s and Groundswell Productions’ offbeat comedy “The Informant!,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Claudette Barius
[2] MATT DAMON as Mark Whitacre and TONY HALE as James Epstein in Warner Bros. Pictures’, Participant Media’s and Groundswell Productions’ offbeat comedy “The Informant!,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Claudette Barius


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