Review: The Informant!

Director: Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean’s 11, Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience, Full Frontal, Erin Brockovich, Che)
Book: Kurt Eichenwald
Screenplay: Scott Z. Burns
Producers: Howard Braunstein, Kurt Eichenwald, Jennifer Fox, Gregory Jacobs, Michael Jaffe
Starring: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey, Thomas F. Wilson
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 108 min.


With the films of current prestigious studios or directors (Tarantino, Coen Brothers, Pixar, Wes Anderson, etc.) I find that the first thing I do as I leave the theater is rank the movie alongside its counterparts. Steven Soderbergh films fall very much within that realm and while I enjoyed The Informant! quite a bit, I couldn’t help but think this is a slighter lesser film in Soderbergh’s filmography. But like Tarantino, Coens, et. al, a lesser film by someone the likes of Soderbergh is likely better than 95% of all other movies comparatively. So yes, The Informant! is a very good film. And likely upon further screenings and reflection could even be great and steadily climb the ranks within Soderbergh’s repertoire. But time will tell.

Damon plays Mark Whitacre. An obviously wealthy family man who after some problems begin to get the better of him at the office, decides it best to finally stick it to the company that isn’t exactly playing by the rules. Through some clever trickery on Whitacre’s part, the FBI gets involved and they of course want nothing more than to take down a giant corporation on fraud charges. But as the evidence mounts up and the game gets more and more complicated, things quickly begin to spiral out of control and Whitacre gets further and further in over his head as he steadily becomes more and more untrustworthy and shady.

The standout here is clearly Damon. Though he’s got a wonderful ensemble to work with (Bakula was wonderfully cast and it’s great to see him getting some much needed screen time after “Enterprise”), Damon has never had a more tangible character. This is clearly not Bourne or Linus Caldwell (Ocean’s 11). Damon has captured a middle-aged family man who’s years have done the typical things years will do to a man. The character is as fleshed out as he can be and Damon embodies him perfectly – from gait to physical appearances to temperament; it’s perfect.

What makes it all the more compelling is how complicated the character of Mark Whitacre is. It takes the full 90 minutes of running time to fully understand who this character is and the revelations, for want of a better word, come slowly and really gives a lot of time for the character to breathe and be believable. A man who starts as a fairly likable guy to the audience slowly materializes as more and more of a reprehensible person as the film goes on; even if we don’t ultimately see this until very near the end of the film. Of course half of this realization is due to Damon’s acting, but also the script is what gives Whitacre a voice; both inner and vocal. Throughout the film we’re treated to Damon’s narration as he describes in fair detail the random thoughts, ideas and bits of trivia as they run through his mind. So while it feels like we should really be focusing on what an FBI agent is saying as he describes something probably pretty important, instead we hear Whitacre’s idea for a movie plot or random trivia about Polar Bear camouflage. Not only is this entertaining but it really gives us a glimpse of who the character is and how he perceives the world. Again, more than a plot driven story, this is a character study of someone fairly disturbed.

What bogs the film down isn’t really of any faults that the film has, it’s more how the movie was marketed and what we’re expecting. People going in looking for a laugh-a-minute comedy in which Damon makes a mockery of middle aged office workers are going to be surprised to find that while there are some humorous moments, this is a much more serious movie than what the marketing department wants to let on. The problem is that it’s maybe not serious enough. It’s very dead-panned and then this happens to reveal more of the character and then this happens to reveal a little bit more and then this happens, etc etc. While this is fine, it’s never particular edgy or particularly funny; it’s just straight forward character development that’s not even as dark as it could be. Not only that but the story spans several years so its not exactly a “tight” film. Things take time to flesh out. So expect that.

The look of the movie is also a big bonus. Soderbergh continues to be his own DP and continues to excel. The film looks a little faded or used as though it’s been around a while. Which is perfect considering that the story takes place in the early 90′s. So on top of the general aesthetic of the lighting and film stock the set department does an excellent job of recreating the early 1990′s. Which if you think about it is not an easy task. This isn’t the 80′s in which everything is outlandish and garish. There are no majorly noticeable fashion trends among business execs or golf pros at the time. So everything needed to just sort of have a very plain, subdued look to it. And aside from one moment with an early tech cell phone, keeping things looking 15 years old without actually bringing a lot of attention to is quite a feat and carried out perfectly.

It’s fair to say I was quite entertained by The Informant! and as I let the dust settle and think about all of the implication of the film and its characters, the more and more it grows upon me and a future screening becomes not only a requisite and probably inevitable, but also more and more desirable. The movie’s strengths lie in decoding the main character and reveling in all of the details of Damon’s performance and his surroundings. Yes, I believe this to be a film that will age better with time and will work just as well on DVD over the years as it does now in the multi-plex.

8 comments

  1. I think you're right that the marketing was way off on this one. The things that were funny in the trailer weren't really funny in the movie – they were more uncomfortable (appropriately so, I think). I ended up enjoying the film more once I realized that, but I still think it dragged a bit in the middle. After more levels of the plot started unfolding about three quarters the way through it picked up a lot.

    You're right, a second viewing is almost going to be required, if only to refocus on the character rather than the situation (i.e., the opposite of what the marketing led you to focus on).

  2. Easily in my favorite top five films of Soderbergh, this is the kind of stuff I want to see him doing, and I don't get any criticism of this being unfunny or less funny than you thought it would be… this is an escalation of comedy that is far better than, say, for example the rapid-fire assault of In the Loop. I do not rate comedies according to how many times they make me laugh, I look at the quality of the experience, and with The Informant! I was entirely with it because I had no idea where it was going to take me (a rarity in films today, particularly comedies) and out of that unexpectedness I found the comedy was fresher, I wasn't waiting for a punchline.

  3. I remain stoked (er, I mean Stoked!) for this one. I Must get out to the theatre at some point! Still sick and wound-down after tiff to brave the current releases and damn are they ever piling up. Loads of interesting stuff out there.

    • I don't totally agree Rot. At some point a movie that doesn't make you laugh has got to be considered not a comedy. I don't think Informant is much of a comedy at all. If I were racking the DVD at the video store, I certainly wouldn't put it in the comedy section.

      I too do not rate comedies by how much I laugh, but when a film is marketed as one thing and is quite the other, than I make note of that. As I said in the review, there's nothing wrong with the film itself – the problem lied with my expectations. The film is actually better than my expectations. But I'm writing a review for the masses and I'm saying if you walk into this movie hoping to see what looks like a total parody/satire (based on the trailer), you're going to be disappointed.

      I had no idea where "The Disappearance of Alice Creed" was going to take me either, but it's clearly not a comedy.

  4. " I don’t think Informant is much of a comedy at all."

    Really? I thought virtually everything running through Damon's interior monologue was funny, but then the real laughs come from how things escalate. The lawyer's expression throughout killed me, it was like Buster Keaton. I think in addition to being comedic the film also has some nice dramatic bits, and story twists.

    • I suppose Informant is a comedy on some level, but the more I think about it, the more I realize it is more of a troubling drama – yes the inner narration was pretty funny (especially the movie plot). But the rest of the stuff, particularly the stuff shown in the trailer that is supposed to be funny just isn't. "The glucose guy, he's out of a job." In the trailer that's funny. In the movie not so much. "I haven't been totally straight with you guys, but I'm gonna clear all that up in there today." Trailer that's funny, in the context of the film is frustrating (in a good way) and poignant to the character. Not really comedic… IMO.

      So I guess I do gauge a comedy by how much I smile chuckle, smirk or laugh. Because if the film is sold as a comedy and it doesn't do any of those things. Then either A) It's not a comedy or B) it sucks.

  5. Marina Antunes

    I saw this just before the festival kicked off and like you Andrew, was surprised to find that it wasn't as laugh out loud funny as the trailer suggested. That said, I did laugh a lot and probably shook my head through most of it – how could you not?

    And the opening credits & music throughout: genius. Seriously.

  6. Kurt Halfyard

    Caught this last night at the multiplex. This one officially rules, and actually covers the same ground as THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE in a more 180 Degrees different and interesting way.

    I love this movie.

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