The Informant

September, 2009, Comedy

 

 

 

 

Director Steven Soderbergh’s latest is a shaggy-dog story which  might best be understood as the equivalent of a jazz riff on the real-life experiences of a corporate embezzler turned F.B.I. undercover agent whose exploits would be dismissed as screenwriting fantasy if they didn’t happen to be true. Armed with a brilliantly loopy performance by Matt Damon and cinematic flourishes that burnish Soderbergh’s reputation as a director interested in pushing the technical boundaries of conventional movie-making, The Informant isn’t going to please everyone, but it’s charms make it one of the more interesting films of this recently all-too-predictable summer season. More amusing than laugh-out loud funny, this one will intrigue as much as it amuses.

 

Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a corporate nebbish toiling for the giant grain company Archer Daniels Midland. Armed with an expense account sufficient to support an army of bureaucrats, Whitacre spans the globe on behalf of his employer, setting up secret companies in which to stash the money he pilfers. When some operational bungling threatens his personal scamming, he contacts the Feds, deflecting their focus on him by confiding that senior officials in the company are engaged in a series of international arrangements designed to fix the prices of basic elements in the global food supply. Eager to learn more, the F.B.I. asks Whitacre to go undercover on their behalf, which he does while continuing his personal embezzlement of ADM funds. When the house of cards finally collapses, Whitacre is sent to jail along with the higher –ups who organized the price-fixing collusion, costing ADM a half-billion dollar fine and loads of extraordinarily bad publicity.

 

All this would be quite routine were it not for the fact that screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum) has crafted a series of soliloquies for Damon, (which he delivers in dreamy voice-overs throughout the film) detailing how Whitacre’s justified his own criminality while simultaneously working to destroy the even larger criminal enterprise going on above him in the company. These ruminations, which Damon delivers in a pensive tone devoid of any connection with reality, begin with obscure but observable facts which Whitacre then bends, in the most bizarre fashion, to justify his actions. Soderbergh and Damon don’t provide a portrait of someone suffering from mental illness, but rather the far more interesting picture of a man employing the most outrageous lies to convince himself that his conduct is not only justified, but ultimately laudable.

 

Damon’s character here is the polar opposite of his highly principled C.I.A. operative in The Good Shepard, but the actor’s ability to disappear into yet another seemingly bland personality suits the director’s purposes perfectly and when combined with the director’s inexplicably garish lighting and a storyline which teases out the process of corporate malfeasance amid the bungling oversight of Whitacre’s law enforcement handlers, audiences are treated to a tongue-in-cheek tale from which no one emerges unscathed.

 

Soderbergh’s been responsible for any number of commercially interesting films over the past decade or so, (Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s 11 & 12, Che, Parts 1 & 2) along with the brilliant, (if short-lived) television series K Street. He’s had some failures along the way as well, (Solaris, The Good German, The Bubble) but he’s fearless in the effort to test the limits of his creativity. Filmgoers everywhere benefit from that repeated willingness to take chances with his craft.

 

The Verdict? A decidedly off-beat comedy with one of the cleverest screenplays of recent memory and a lead performance which brings it off with perfection.

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