Friday, September 25, 2009

Film Review: The Informant! (!)

You probably know a character like Mark Whitacre. This is the sort of person who is not dumb, exactly, but they never really got the hang of how life works. Conversations with them frequently degenerate into absurd exchanges of non-sequiters, punctuated with pompous but naïve assertions of their own self-worth. These people don't understand the world they live in at all, but they are convinced that they know everything. Depending on your sense of humor and your tolerance for this sort of thing, you might them amusing. More often then not, these types of people are funnier on the big screen then they are in real life.

Mark Whitacre is the corporate whistle-blower in Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!, a man who risks his career in order to expose a price-fixing scheme within the chemical food industry. Mark Whitacre is also a compulsive liar, an embezzler, and carries delusions that the very company he's helping to bring down will make him the next CEO. Throughout the movie, the audience is subject to a voiceover of Whitacre's thoughts. Rather than anything revealing, or even interesting, these thoughts usually turn into meandering ruminations on polar bears, German etymology, and other such unrelated subjects. These voice-overs have nothing to do with the plot of the film, but they might be its funniest aspect, and remind the audience how batshit crazy its protagonist really is.

The Informant! is a comedy, which is a good decision. As a legal thriller, this subject matter is stale and overdone. Thankfully, Soderbergh is smart enough to know that. Instead of trying to craft a dramatic narrative out of what amounts to a bunch of old guys in suits talking about corn, he's created a comedy in the most unlikely of places. The film even begins with Whitacre trying to explain the importance of lysine to his very bored son, poking fun at its own premise.

Lucky for Soderbergh, the Mark Whitacre story is so absurd that one has to laugh at it in order not to cry. Here is a man who was assisting the FBI to expose price-fixing, while at the same time setting up phony off-shore accounts to embezzle millions of corporate funds. Whitacre is simultaneously convinced that everyone loves him, and that everyone is out to get him. He fancies himself a character in a John Grisham or a Michael Crichton novel, but then crafts elaborate lies in order to...well...his motives aren't exactly clear, probably even to himself. Matt Damon (or perhaps Fatt Damon, seeing as he gained thirty pounds for this role) deftly portrays Whitacre is a hyperactive, mildly bipolar man who weaves complex schemes for no real reason other than he feels that he deserves some sort of attention.

Damon's portrayal of Whitacre - smart, shrewd, scatter-brained, hypocritical, and strangely innocent - is one of the best comic performances I've seen in years. The humor rings true because I do know people like this in real life. It's funny not because it's so far-out, but because it's so close to home. As I've mentioned, the voice-over of Whitacre's inner monologues are the laughably bizarre musings of a smart and slightly unhinged man. Aside from being hilarious, they also serve to drown out the dialogue in some of the film's crucial scenes, which only highlights how out-of-touch with reality Whitacre is. Indeed, there are a few scenes in which the audience is initially unaware of how important certain events are, because they've been distracted by these voice-overs. This is not a fault - rather, this sort of distraction creates a mood of confusion and laughable uneasiness as the audience struggles with the FBI to untangle Whitacre's schemes.

The two supporting characters are FBI agents played by Scott Bakkula and Joel McHale. Completely straight-faced and always looking slightly taken aback, they might be the second-funniest part of the film. These characters would not be out of place in a traditional legal thriller, but they are most assuredly out of place next to Whitacre's antics. Their reactions to some of his lies are just subtle enough to be believable, which makes it all the more entertaining to watch.

I've read a number of other reviews on the film, and some seem confused about its genre. Though based on a very unfunny true story, The Informant! is certainly a comedy, just not the kind we've come to expect from Hollywood in recent years. The humor of the film comes not from laugh-out-loud gags, or one-joke quips, but the absurdity of the characters themselves. Much like Andrew's point in his pair of posts on the modern sitcom, The Informant! counts on the audience to be smart enough to know a funny situation when they see one. The movie amounts to a comedic character study - not quite a fish-out-of-water scenario, but just a world in which the protagonist is slightly out of sync with everybody else.

At some points, the movie treads dangerously close to parody, and this is probably where it is weakest. The exclamation point after the title, a movie score that lovingly mocks the music of 70s spy films, even a snarky disclaimer at the beginning - these elements juxtapose Whitacre's fascination with spy novels with his mundane corporate life, but they also confuse the purpose of the film. At times, The Informant! drifts close to an Austin Powers type of self-referentiality, especially when peppered with a number of comedic actors in cameo roles.

Luckily, the plot remains grounded enough in reality that it ends up accentuating the hilarious illogic of Whitacre's schemes and motivations. I can't say I laughed a lot during the film, but I had a big goofy grin on my face the whole time. In the end, I'll take what amounts to a unique but slightly flawed comedy over a run-of-the-mill agricultural legal thriller anyday. The Informant! proves that it's not the source material that counts, but what you do with it.

Final Verdict: 79 Congos.