REVIEW: ‘The Informant’

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Grade: B+

I get a kick out of in-jokes; jokes that are framed with a reference that only certain members of a given audience will get. A lot of times I am not that member of the audience. References to politics, literature, and pop culture occasionally go over my head. However, in Steven Soderbergh’s latest satire The Informant! I got it. The whole movie is one big joke designed for Economics majors like myself.

If you’re not a number crunching, market-trend watching nut like myself, don’t be afraid. The Informant! is a hilarious satire that deserves to be seen. It’s brilliantly helmed by Steven Soderbergh to feel like a retro corporate comedy. Set in the early 90s, the film has the stale, colorless feel that you would expect a drug-free corporate America to exude. In the foreground of the dull atmosphere is a compulsive liar who, doggone it, just wants people to like him.

Matt Damon leads the cast of brilliant character actors with a performance that should be remembered come awards season (but won’t because it’s a comedy). He plays Mark Whitacre, a pudgy family man who is quickly working his way up the corporate ladder at ADM, a producer of high-fructose corn syrup and one of the most powerful companies in the world. ADM is involved in a price-fixing scandal with their global competitors and secretly swindling worldwide consumers. Whitacre decides that he’s had enough and with motivations that are unclear to everyone, he decides to work with the FBI as an undercover informant at ADM.

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Whitacre jumps into his new secret endeavor like somebody who has only seen spying done in movies, yet considers himself an expert. He bumbles through his taped meetings, narrates his own life, and miraculously manages not to arouse the suspicions of his co-workers. All the while the FBI, the executives at ADM, Whitacre’s family, and the viewer sit back and wonder whose side he really is on.

Thematically, The Informant! echoes the Coen Brothers’ underrated 2009 film Burn After Reading. It disassembles the formula of the government spy thriller by showing how a federal bureau can be tied up and baffled by something as simple as everyday stupidity. Whitacre is a man with such a twisted sense of morality that is proves perplexing and entertaining. Some of the best moments of the movie come with Whitacre’s voice-over monologues in which he shares his thoughts on man’s place in the world (and polar bears).

Damon’s comedic timing was spot on. He bounced off the other actors with a never-tiring mouth that seemed to always be either bragging or defending himself. The best supporting role was delivered by Scott Bakula as the FBI Agent Brian Shepherd. As the deadpan straight-man, Bakula was the perfect complement to the eccentric, fast-talking Damon. Another excellent supporting turn is delivered by Joel McHale of “The Soup” fame as FBI Agent Bob Herndon. This is a movie where it is often more fun to watch the reactions than the actual dialogue and McHale and Bakula deliver some priceless reactions.

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The elements of the film come together to present Whitacre as an eccentric figure in a mundane corporate world. In a world of white shirts and black ties, Whitacre’s tie has a pattern. The cinematography by Soderbergh paints the world with a yellowish hue in which Whitacre sticks out in every frame. Even when driving a hot red sports car, Whitacre feels out of place – like in his mind the world should be offering him more.

The film was underscored with an appropriately goofy soundtrack by Mark Hamlisch. The music sounded like an arcade version of the James Bond theme, which emphasized the misguided self-glorification that Whitacre maintained.

The unpredictable conclusion was a welcome ending that the rest of the narrative did a great job setting up. I feel this movie deserves a second viewing in order to pick up some of the subtleties that hint at the oncoming conclusion. My only complaint about the film is that some of the plot points were a little bit fuzzy. For instance, the wife character’s involvement in Whitacre’s activity was quite unclear and she seemed to switch sides. That would probably be cleared up in a second viewing.

Bottom Line: The Informant! is a smartly directed satire that deserves to be seen by anybody who wants a little stupidity with their spy movies.

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