Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Informant!

The Informant! is the real-life story of Mark Whitacre (played by Matt Damon), a man who became an informant to the FBI and yet was still prosecuted by them.  Whitacre is an upper level executive in a company that does some boring stuff with corn.  They make corn into other things, like ethanol and whatnot.  He is overseeing a project that is supposed to increase the output of the additive lysine, which is used in commercial livestock; the project isn't doing well.  Whitacre goes to his bosses (Thomas F. Wilson and Tom Papa)and explains that he has been getting phone calls from a competitor; the competitor alleges that there is a mole at Whitacre's company, ADM, that is sabotaging the lysine production.  For a fee, the competitor will identify the mole and/or explain how to bypass the sabotage.  The boss contacts the FBI, who announce their intention of tapping whatever phone Whitacre uses for these calls; when FBI agent Shepard (Scott Bakula) arrives at Whitacre's home to install the tap, Whitacre drops a bomb on him.  ADM executives (including Whitaker) have been secretly negotiating with their global competitors for years to set the price for lysine on a year-by-year basis.  That allows the lysine companies to make hundreds of millions of dollars by keeping the price of lysine artificially high; this affects farmer, which in turn affects consumers, which means that the general public has been bilked out of tons of money because these corporate fat cats were greedy.

Whitacre volunteers to act as an undercover informant for the FBI, gathering hundreds of video and audio tapes of these back-room dealings over five years.  The case against ADM is pretty good.  Then everything goes wrong for Whitacre.  The District Attorney begins prosecution against ADM, but is shown some interesting things in ADM's paperwork.  It turns out that Whitacre, who voluntarily blew the whistle on a multimillion dollar case of price fixing, spent those same five years defrauding his own company out of millions.  The FBI was embarrassed to realize that their star witness was, in fact, a high-level criminal himself while he worked with them.  Whitacre tries to cover for himself, weaving a dense web of barely coherent lies, but he is prosecuted for his crimes.

 As you can probably tell, this is a plot-heavy movie.  If you're going to watch this, the details will matter, so don't bother if you're tired or bored by legal stuff.  In the end, it's not the plot that is as important as what Whitacre says throughout the film.  Whitacre is constantly lying and contradicting himself throughout the film.  Remember the corporate mole and sabotage from the beginning of the movie?  Completely made up.  And that's not even an important point in the movie.  The film makes a brief (if insincere) detour to blame some of his behavior on bipolar disorder, but the fact remains that he lies in every scene in the movie.  The more you pay attention to his initial claims, the more you will appreciate him getting caught lying later.

I say "appreciate" and not "laugh at" for a reason.  While this is categorized as a comedy, I would say that it is probably as comedic as Fargo.  Yes, there are funny things in both, but neither is light-hearted and the comedy does not come from jokes or gags.  Really, this is a movie-sized Law and Order with a complete idiot as the main character.  Maybe I shouldn't say he's a complete idiot; he did manage to steal millions from his own company and spy on them without getting caught.  In fact, the only reason he got caught for embezzlement is because he blew the whistle on the price fixing.  No, he's a complete idiot.  His primary motivation for blowing the whistle was to get all the other executives fired, so he could take over the company.  Gaps in logic like that are the most common sources for comedy here, but Matt Damon does a series of voice-over non sequiturs that are genuinely funny.  Still, branding this a "comedy" does the film a disservice by setting up unreasonable expectations, like jokes.

The acting in the movie is fine.  Matt Damon gained about twenty-five pounds to play the role and he does seem more down-to-earth here.  I also have to admit that I was consistently frustrated by his character's lies, so Damon was convincing . I don't think his performance is exceptional, but he does a good job.  I was particularly impressed by his mustache. The rest of the cast is decent, but nothing special.  Scott Bakula and Joel McHale are fine as FBI agents.  Melanie Lynskey does a lot with the given material as Whitacre's wife, but it's ultimately a bit part.  Clancy Brown, Paul F. Tompkins, Patton Oswalt, Tom Papa, Thomas F. Wilson and several other recognizable faces and voices (one of John Cusack's sisters has a small role) all do their jobs, but they are essentially playing straight men in their two or three minutes on screen.  There are a lot of stand-up comedians in this cast, which makes the lack of outright jokes in this movie all the more apparent.

That brings the direction into question.  Steven Soderbergh is a director that has no problem using style to make a point in his films.  Normally, I like his choices.  He has used interesting cinematography, split screens, and hand-held cameras to good effect in the past, but here is plays it pretty straight.  Too straight for my liking.  The actors all play their roles as if they are in a drama, which is fine, given the script.  However, the casting of so many known comedians undercuts this.  While the comedians are not being funny (not their fault), their mere presence implies that something should be found funny.  Normally, I like seeing comedians branching out into drama, but this just seems insincere.  I also don't like being told (subtly or not) what should be funny.  This isn't as insulting as a laugh track, but I still don't like it.  Another odd directoral choice is the music Soderbergh used.  I get that it adds a whimsical feel to a movie that is largely light take on Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich.  I get that the juxtaposition of the music with the monotony of big business is intended to remind viewers that this is a comedy and make Damon's voice-over lines feel less random.  It doesn't work for me.  I found the music annoying.

I don't mean to criticize this movie for what it is not.  I think the script is smart, if a tad dry, and I think Damon's character worked, but would have been better in a movie that was more overtly comical.  I just don't think this movie achieved what it set out to do.  Damon's voice-over, the music, and the constant presence of comedians all indicate that this movie was meant to be funny.  I didn't laugh or enjoy this movie much.  While I found the story interesting and the plot well-paced, I just didn't enjoy this alleged comedy.  This isn't a bad movie, just one that's lying to itself about what it wants to be

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