Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey, Thomas F. Wilson
Running Time: 119 min.
★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
Years ago I remember watching an episode of The Simpsons where Homer was wearing a t-shirt and hat that read: "WITNESS PROTECTION PROGRAM." If that one joke were stretched to two hours the result would probably resemble Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! And I'm not just saying that because the film's star, Matt Damon, looks like a cross between Ned Flanders and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Like Homer in that episode, he plays a character so endearingly clueless that it's hilarious. The movie won me over right away when it flashed one of those disclaimers letting us know the following story would be based on true events, then added..."SO THERE."
You wouldn't figure a non-fiction story about a corporate whistle blower in a lysine price-fixing scandal would make for the ripest of satires, nor is it a topic I was interested in seeing explored, but I still couldn't stop laughing. Soderbergh wisely makes it about everything but the story and his approach turns it one of the more bizarrely entertaining films of the year, not to mention a real surprise. It's hard to describe just how strange the choices he makes are and it's likely something this far outside the box will only appeal to a niche audience and turn off more viewers than it connects with. But who cares? It's funny.
Most of the film's success lies in Damon's performance, where he takes his biggest stretch yet as an actor. Then there's the unforgettably quirky musical score that's so integral to the film it may as well share top billing alongside him as a co-star. That is if Soderbergh hadn't already brilliantly cast actors as diverse as Quantum Leap's Scott Bakula, Back to the Future's Thomas F. Wilson, Arrested Development's Tony Hale and The Soup's Joel McHale. Just the presence of these talents together onscreen would be enough to make this a must-see for me, but it's an added bonus that they're all also terrific in their roles. While I always considered him one of the more eclectic filmmakers, I never counted myself as much of a Soderbergh supporter, but maybe it's time to start reassessing that.
It's the early 199o's and Mark Whitacre (Damon) is an executive on the fact track to success at the Decatur, Illinois based company Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) until he seems to suddenly get an attack of conscience and bring his knowledge of their price fixing scheme to the F.B.I. Called on to the case are Special Agents Shephard (Bakula) and Herndon (McHale) who rig him with a wire to obtain tapes for use as evidence. One problem: Mark is a very dumb man. Really dumb. Or so it appears at first, but as the plot thickens we realize he may not be because no one could possibly make decisions this stupid without having some legitimate mental disorder.
The biggest question concerns not the illegal activities of ADM but the motives behind Mark's behavior, and how it could possibly benefit him in any way to take down this company. The F.B.I. agents are understandably confused and skeptical, especially when he's telling everyone he knows that he's an informant and proudly providing narrative commentary on the action to the agents while he's wired. You start to wonder what his angle is. Is it money? Or is he really that much of a dope that he actually thinks he'll be considered a hero for doing this? His voice-over that unreliably narrates much of the film is borderline insane...and hysterical. His "thoughts" have nothing to do with anything related to the plot and consists largely of pointless ruminations on life and goofy observations that confirm he's not playing with a full deck.
From the moment the paunchy, big-haired, mustachioed Damon first appears on screen you just know it's going to be a memorable performance and a huge departure from anything he's previously done. He's almost physically unrecognizable to the point that you really have to remind yourself it's Matt Damon and it's obvious in just his walk and facial expressions that he's physically and emotionally immersed himself to the max in the role. This guy's behavior is so off-the-wall that the portrayal seems destined to devolve into caricature or parody but he finds a way to walk that very thin line the entire time without stepping over. That's important when we start to realize Mark may not actually be as dumb as we think he is and his mental health could be a more serious issue than expected. Yet the film remains consistently humorous through all of this because of Damon's commitment to the part.
If anything, this makes me want to go back and look at some of his more muted work in films like Good Will Hunting, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Bourne trilogy and The Good Shepherd and figure out how the same actor could have played this exaggerated, larger-than-life character. I was never really a fan. always considereding him more a movie star than an actor, but this shut me up quickly. He has this one scene when he's on the phone with the F.B.I. and has to adjust his pathological lying on the fly because his boss is in the room. How Damon handles it has to be seen to be believed. He was nominated for an Academy Award this year for his supporting role in Invictus and even having not seen it yet still feel comfortable enough saying it's unlikely his work there could even come close to competing with what he does in this.
The second most important role is Scott Bakula's as Special Agent Shephard, who plays straight man to Mark Whitacre's increasingly zany behavior throughout the story with just the right amount of incredulity. He's our eyes and ears, reacting just as we might. As a longtime Quantum Leap fan, it was great to see Bakula again in such a major role and hopefully this opens the door to more parts for him because his comeback in this will go down as one of the highlights of the movie year for me. It may even be more of a highlight than trying to guess whether he was wearing a wig or that was actually his hair. Joel McHale receives less screen time as his partner but is just as effective. And what even needs to be said about the decision to cast Biff (Wilson) from Back To The Future as Mark's boss?
It's easy to imagine this story being told as a boring biographical drama but Soderbergh has more interesting, quirky ideas for the material. A 1970's TV style title font appears sporadically on screen letting us know the year and month events are taking place and even though it's supposed to be the early to mid 90's, everything from the sets to the costumes suggest the action's taking place in the 70's. It's a weird, but inspired decision that puts the viewer as off balance as the film's delusional protagonist. But none of this would have the effect it does without the insanely catchy retro musical score by Marvin Hamlisch, who I was surprised to recently discover was still living. That's not intended as a joke...this composer's really been around in the business for a long time. Somehow his main title theme was passed over at Oscar time in favor of Michael Giacchino's overrated work on Up. Hamlisch's score is the all too rare example of a main title theme that does call attention to itself, but in a practical way, enhancing every portion of the film where it pops up and perfectly matching the story's tone. After an initial listen it's impossible to get it out of your head.
Amazingly, this is based on a true story that provided the foundation for the 2000 book by Kurt Eichenwald. That book was a non-fiction thriller and if it were adapted as such, minus the liberties taken by Scott Z. Burns' satirical script and Soderbergh's ingenious approach, this could have easily turned into one of those dry, run-of-the-mill John Grisham thrillers Hollywood spits out every couple of years. But both had the foresight to see the satirical elements in the story that could come out and allows us to laugh at and with the main character, even as we pity him. With some filmmakers like Tim Burton simply phoning in the same movie over and over again, it's a relief we have someone like Soderbergh who challenges himself and us by doing something completely different each time out. With The Informant! he manages to turn what could have been a dry, fact-based corporate corruption tale into an endlessly inventive, loony farce that earns the exclamation point in its title.