Saturday, March 24, 2018
The Informant! Show Matt Damon In Top Form But Steven Soderbergh Has Done Better
Director Steven Soderbergh loves movies about criminals with some of his most famous works (namely, the trilogy of Ocean's Eleven movies or Out of Sight) exploring crooks in a light-hearted manner, while one of his most acclaimed dramas (Traffic) explores various avenues of criminal activity. His 2009 effort The Informant! falls in between these two groups of movies in terms of tone, there's a wry playfulness to this specific Soderbergh meditation on criminal activity, but it's also clearly supposed to be more contemplative about specific sociopolitical issues compared to his more jaunty explorations of law-breakers.
The titular Informant! is none other than real-life individual Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon, who famously put on a bunch of weight to portray this lead role), who works for Archer Daniels Midland in Illinois. During an FBI investigation at the company, Whitacre eventually informs FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) that the company he works for is engaging in price gouging. The FBI is intrigued by this matter and wish for Whitacre to help them further on the matter. Whitacre is reluctant to do so but eventually cooperates by covertly wearing a wire and videotaping conversations ADM executives have with other companies detailing their price gouging practices.
Whitacre is a guy who gets wrapped up in his mind all too easily, as seen by how voice-over of his thoughts rarely relates to matter he's actually engaging in. It's one of a number of flashy flourishes Soderbergh incorporates into the extremely subdued story at hand, with a bouncy old-timey score by Marvin Hamlisch being another example of this artistic decision. Now, when I say this is a subdued story, I do very much mean that, this is a story that's so restrained it sometimes it gets in the way of its own story. Most notably, this omnipresent muted approach means that the world and characters surrounding Mark Whitacre are frequently thinly-sketched, making it hard for events that shake up both his world and loved ones to have as much of an impact as they should.
I also couldn't help but feel that the project wasn't as thoughtful as it could have been. Arriving about a year after the great economic downturn of 2008, one can see timeliness in the third act's key idea of an everyman worker getting a far more severe punishment than top-level executives who committed large-scale crimes. Aside from that, there's not too much to chew on in The Informant! on a thematic level, and since The Informant! is clearly going more for thoughtfulness than comedy, this muted tale of a dim-bulb getting in over his head in espionage tactics feels too often like a lesser cousin of the prior year's farcical masterpiece Burn After Reading.
But then again, there's still praise to be offered up for what The Informant!, an overall solid motion picture, does right, namely in Matt Damon's lead performance. It isn't just in the physical transformation Damon went through for this part that impresses, he's all around great here playing this character as a person instead of just as an assortment of eccentric traits. Damon's work here is all around excellent, especially since he's also providing strong work in the recurring voice-over work used to provide insight into Whitacre's psyche (which also provide the best-written dialogue in Scott Z. Burns screenplay).
A supporting cast that includes Scott Bakula, Joel McHale and Tony Hale do fine work in their parts, particularly Bakula playing a conventional portrait of an all-American FBI agent who gradually becomes disillusioned with his case and Whitacre. Meanwhile, the film, like the rest of Steven Soderbergh's that I've seen, is a visual treat, even if a constant yellow tint feels like it could have been dialed back. But overall, The Informant! looks pretty, has a strong director behind the camera and has one of Matt Damon's best lead performances. I wish the rest of the movie had more substance to it or used it's subdued atmosphere in a more satisfying fashion, though, since they keep The Informant! from hitting the creative heights of Soderbergh's best examinations of crime and the people that commit it.