Saturday, September 19, 2009

Review: 'The Informant!' [B+]

By Chase Kahn

Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! is a completely nutty, entertaining and wicked deadpan comedy that's as eccentric as the exclamation point that dons its title. It's reserved, studious and flat-out disorienting in its depiction of the real-life story of a corporate employee-turned-informer named Mark Whitacre -- played with zany insanity by Matt Damon.

The thing is, Mark is a bit of a eccentric character himself. He lies, backtracks, mumbles and narrates through this maze of corporate and federal investigations until he's not even sure who's on his side anymore. In the actual account, I'm sure Mark Whitacre was just nothing more than a hypocrite -- a whistle-blower who was guilty as the corporation on the other end of his accusations. Here, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns have decided to turn this crazy true story into a full-blown farce.

The Informant! is never a laugh-out-loud howler and it isn't trying to be. It's a disturbing, exaggerated character study about a braindead Cornell genius whose a bipolar enigma of greed and misplaced morality. Matt Damon, who put on 30 lbs. for the role, is spectacular. From his bumbling gape to his forced smiles, he falls right in line as a man who is so far into an elaborate scam job that even he forgets his next play.

I've always felt like Soderbergh is a filmmaker who excels on not only what he shows you, but what he doesn't show you. Here, he spins a web of loopy Midwest corporate/FBI shenanigans into a purposefully hazy ordeal. In the opening thirty minutes, we're as confused as anybody else as to what Mark Whitacre is thinking, scheming or even trying to say.

There's also a persistent Marvin Hamlisch score that's a cross between James Bond and The Jazz Singer, a constant reminder of the inanity of the whole thing. There are a few sight gags and some laugh-intended drops, but The Informant! is a predictably dry and crazy form of comedy by way of the Coen Brothers doing Michael Mann. Anybody expecting anything different is going to squint at the screen and miss the point.

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