November 01, 2009

MOVIES: The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh, 2009)

Near the beginning of a relatively minor FBI investigation into agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland, mid-level executive Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) approaches the FBI and tells them that he has evidence of price-fixing and other crimes far more serious than what they're looking into. Thus begins a crazed journey, in which Whitacre's FBI handlers (played by Scott Bakula and Joel McHale) struggle to figure out whether he's the biggest whistle-blower they've ever seen, or the cleverest con man.

Based on a true story, The Informant! takes its cues from Whitacre's own personality, and is itself impossible to pin down as a movie. The story is a relatively straight drama, but Soderbergh keeps giving us cues that don't fit with that. Take the score, for instance, which is Marvin Hamlisch's first feature film score in thirteen years. It has a very mid-70s feel to it (despite the story taking place in the 90s), and alternates between overly dramatic action cues that feel like something from Barnaby Jones and goofy comic cues that seem to have been pulled from a lost George Segal comedy. And in neither case -- action or comic -- does what's actually happening on the screen ever quite match the intensity of Hamlisch's musical suggestions.

The cast is also an odd mix. Damon is surrounded by actors better known for their TV work, or as comics; the supporting players include Tony Hale, Patton Oswalt, Rick Overton, Melanie Lynskey, and both Smothers Brothers. Damon is the only full-fledged Movie Star in the movie, and whether by the limitations of their talent or by Soderbergh's design, none of his co-stars can command the screen the way he does.

So Damon's the major presence in the movie (and not just because his character is the protagonist), and we're desperately trying to identify with him, and to see this story through his eyes. But Soderbergh and Damon work so hard to distance us from Whitacre by having his motives constantly seem to be shifting, and by making it clear through Damon's voice-over of Whitacre's internal monologues that Whitacre is at least slightly emotionally unbalanced, that we're left with no character we can truly identify with.

With no character, no tone, no style to cling to as a throughline to carry the audience through the movie, I was left floundering for much of it. The movie is never dull, and Damon's performance has some spectacular moments in it as well, but neither the movie nor the performance ever comes together as a coherent whole.

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