The Informant!

by | Mar 2nd, 2010 | 8:00AM | Filed under: DVD Reviews

The brilliance of Steven Soderbergh and Matt Damon’s The Informant! is that like America itself, the more “normal” it appears on the surface, the deeper its delightful weirdness runs. The result is a dryly hilarious film that peels back new layers each time you watch it. And at the center is a knockout performance by Matt Damon–possibly the best of his career so far.

(NOTE: The following is a REPRINT of a review was written last fall after a single theatrical viewing of The Informant! Since then, I’ve seen the film a couple more times, loving it more with each revisiting–it made my top films of the year list. You have to shake off what it’s not [a corporate spy story] and embrace what it is [a deadpan satire of corporate spy stories--and of delusions of heroic grandeur]. Once you do that, despite its drab trappings The Informant! sings with a rich, mesmerizing oddness. The Informant! is now on DVD and available in the redboxes.)

The Informant There are some film goers—myself among them—who yearn to be
baffled. Not by plots of murder mysteries or trick endings, but by films
that refuse to tell you what it all means or how you’re supposed to
feel about them.

Likewise, Steven Soderbergh, the director of Erin Brockovich
and my beloved Oceans 11-13 films, enjoys defying audience
expectations. Soderbergh’s latest
film, The Informant! is being marketed as a slap-happy cousin to
the Oceans films, but anyone going into it looking for
light-hearted, super-cool con-artistry is going to come out baffled.

The Informant! is based on the true story of Mark Whitacre
(Matt Damon), a president at the Archer Daniels Midland food corporation
in the early ‘90s who decides to wear a wire for the FBI and blow the
whistle on AMD’s price fixing of the food additive lycine. Whitacre’s
story was later recounted by New York Times reporter Kurt
Eichenwald in his book of the same title.

And that plot-description sentence right there ends up having little
to do with the film Soderbergh and Damon have made. Don’t worry, I
won’t get into spoilery plot details for those of you who don’t recall
the specifics of the corporate news story. Suffice to say that Whitacre
turns out to be not just an odd whistle-blower and a complicated human
being, but a fascinating portrait of self-delusion and moral, um,


Likewise, this is not much of a social justice tale
like Michael Mann and Russell Crowe’s The Insider—all The
’s surface chatter is about corporate responsibility, the
unhealthy ubiquity of corn-based food additives, and how the American
Dream ended up so doughy and corn-fed. But it’s just that: surface
chatter meant to draw you in close for a droll satire of big-business
thrillers—the sort churned out by Whitacre’s fave authors, Michael
Crichton and John Grisham. Though the film is set in the ‘90s, Soderbergh runs with his
ongoing love of ‘70s cinema, giving the film a demented jauntiness,
underscored—literally—by the retro-groovy music of Marvin Hamlish,
riffing on his own soundtrack for The Sting.



Damon is fantastic, in part because like the film itself, you think
at first he’s coming across too broad and too silly—you think it’s just
Matt Damon, Movie Star goofing around with some extra pasty pounds and
hideous science-teacher eyeglasses. But that’s part of the con as well. No matter what Whitacre does, no matter how increasingly weird,
deluded, or buffoonish his behavior becomes, a part of us still Wants to
Believe In Him because… well, he’s Jason Borne. Even if our gut
instincts are saying “Crazy person! Run away!”

So just like the FBI
thought they were making a case on food-additive price-fixing, we think
we’re getting an exploration of corporate greed and instead get a trip
down the rabbit-hole of one small, very messed up man’s mind—where
deception is just another form of grand self-delusion. Sure, it’s a sort
of spy story, but one in which the on-screen suspense is born out of
jaw-dropping stupidity rather than danger.

Whitacre’s increasingly
bizarre story rambles along, riding on earnest-but-nuts voice-overs
from Damon that only further makes us wonder just how unreliable is our
narrator. Along the way Soderbergh fills the screen with dozens of bit
players, including the terrific Scott Bakula as Whitacre’s FBI handler
who makes the Pained Look into an art form. In fact much of The
seems to be about reaction looks from the supporting cast
(many of whom are stand-up comedians like Joel McHale, Patton Oswalt,
and the Smothers Brothers playing it straight in suits and ties and
stone faces). By the mid-point of the film, nearly everyone who meets
Whitacre ends up with their eyes wide and their mouths agape.


The Informant! plays out like a very experimental
indie film with a Big Movie Star and a wide theatrical release. The film
jets all over the world, but the scenery is the same: tan-drab hotel
rooms, offices, and conference rooms. Soderbergh is one of our best
working mainstream directors, and it is exactly his deadpan dispassion
that makes him so effective. The Informant! is a defense of that
emotional detachment, making a satirical case for why you should never
trust a passionate person full of grand dreams and schemes. (In that
respect, Soderbergh is the Anti-Terry Gilliam.)

In the end you might
walk out of The Informant! chuckling at how amusingly complicated
human beings are, but perhaps left with a nagging uncertainty as to
whether a movie as manically understated as this is even necessary. As
someone who loves when a film leaves me struggling to make sense of not
just it but my reaction to it, I say Yes.

2 Responses to “The Informant!

  1. Fiirvoen
    Posted on March 2, 2010 at 10:53 am

    I completely agree. I fell in love with that same feeling after seeing Fight Club for the first time. Oddly enough, some of the movies that have done that to me are Death to Smoochy, The Informant, Barton Fink, Fargo, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and a few others. Each a movie that left me unsure about how I felt about it at the end.
    I would note however, that even with a very ambiguous ending, the real story is even more ambiguous and confusing. Listen to This American Life’s take on the Whitacre story sometime. I would recommend after seeing the Informant. Hearing it before hand takes away some of the confusion of the movie. And that’s not a good thing.

  2. Ashley
    Posted on March 2, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    Finally watched this and the perfect quote comes from a completely unrelated movie: “Two words come to mind when I hear you speak: weird and delusional. And If I had to pick a third… goofy. Just plain goofy.”
    But I’m with Locke & Fiirvoen — I enjoy a movie that leaves me wondering and this one definitely qualifies. Even though I had heard parts of Whitacre’s story before, I found myself utterly baffled by the end.