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September 15, 2009

The Informant!

Steven Soderbergh's Satire Pales
By Cole Smithey

The-informant-poster1 Oddly, director Steven Soderbergh seems to believe that casting Matt Damon as habitual corporate liar and thief Mark Whitacre constitutes an empathetic protagonist. Soderbergh has loads of fun with a perky musical score (courtesy of Marvin Hamlisch) and jaunty '70s-era visual hat-tips toward a certain "Get Smart" aura of goofy charm. But the filmmaker is unable to tease out substance from what is essentially an off-key one-note samba. Family man Mark Whitacre is an ambitious biochemist at Archer Daniels Midland in Decatur, Illinois. He greedily adds to his growing collection of expensive European sport cars by bilking huge amounts of money from the company that specializes in corn-based products like lysine. To cover his tracks, Mark plays two ends against the middle--in this case the FBI versus his bosses at ADM.

Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns embellishes Mark's compulsive lying with voice-overs of his arcane internal monologue about such things as dress ties and frequent flier miles. Whitacre goes through the motions of acting as a whistle-blower, outing his company's vague price-fixing deals, that a couple of incompetent FBI guys believe will bring down the company. Because every word that Mark speaks is a lie, there's no use trying to follow the story for any cogent sense of substantive meaning. "The Informant!" is all tone, style, and irony at the exclusion of the story. Everyone is either dumb as a stump, efficiently greedy, or both. They're much like the geniuses responsible for America's recent economic meltdown--not the kind of people anyone wants to see glorified.

Soderbergh goes for creating a bubbly aural and visual backdrop, in the erroneous notion that it will function like wrapping paper to dress up something ugly. "The Informant!" is a kissing cousin to the 2007 satire "Charlie Wilson's War," which also tried vainly to milk comedy from dicey ethics with the help of a swinging mod atmosphere. Pretty colors and hip groovy font types do not automatically make your movie swing. If Soderbergh had pressed the material as far into the farcical direction that he seemed to want to go (think Peter Sellers in the "Pink Panther" films), the film might have fared better.
Much is being made of the 30 pounds of weight that Matt Damon put on to play a role that has really no redeeming quality. There's no question that Damon loses himself in the part. Indeed, the actor resides so deeply inside his disguise that you forget you're watching Matt Damon. Melanie Lynskey pulls focus in her under-used role as Mark's air-headed wife Ginger. Soderbergh's failure to get inside the couple's relationship as a vehicle for character revelation is perhaps the film's biggest missed opportunity. 

Mark Whitacre is a compulsive thinker. We listen to his arcane inner-monologues that provide a smoke screen identity for him to hide from himself the reality of illegal actions, even while he's doing them. Mark cooks up a $10 million extortion demand from a mysterious profit-seeking acquaintance for his bosses at ADM to pay up--through him naturally. But when ADM calls in the FBI to investigate, Mark drops his extortion plan and turns whistle-blower about how ADM is fixing prices, and how he can help prove it. The gullible FBI wonks take the bait like hot tuna and turn Mark loose with a secret recording device, and planted cameras in conference rooms, to prove Mark's villainous accusations. Locations change, doors open and shut, and we listen constantly to the inner-linking of deceitful gears in Mark's head. You might wonder, "Is this how Bernie Madoff stole so much money--by spinning thousands of lies?" The short answer is yes. The problem is that it's insulting to be lied to, especially when the stakes are so high. Satire is not a good genre for Soderbergh.
(Warner Bros. Pictures) Rated R. 108 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)


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