Friday, September 18, 2009

The Informant!: Matt Damon spills the beans, then the rice, and just keeps going

The exclamation point decorating the title of
The Informer! gives us a helpful nudge from the get-go that where we’re going is going to be plenty goofy. It’s not a musical, but it is in one sense a hell of a song and dance. As imagined by obscenely productive director Steven Soderbergh and Bourne Ultimatum screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, this filmic realization of investigative reporter Kurt Eichenwald’s 2000 nonfiction book of the same name—sans flamboyant punctuation—is less a corporate thriller than it is a punchy comic meditation on greed, compulsion, and manipulation. Mark Whitacre, the agri-business executive who secretly collaborated with the FBI in a campaign against his employers on charges of price fixing back in the mid-1990s, would have made a perfectly fascinating subject for a more conventional sort of white-collar crime movie. But Soderbergh and Burns have gone way out on a limb in terms of tone and narrative focus to render him a figure that’s at once enigmatic and strangely intelligible. They’ve taken some pretty crazy risks, and the risks pay off as terrifically audacious entertainment with a toothy social slant.

A large part of the credit for why this all works so well should go to Matt Damon, who in films like The Departed, The Good Shepherd and the Bourne franchise has nurtured a niche for himself via his remarkable talent for twisting his own boyish charisma into perverse shapes. His Whitacre is a golf-loving, Wal-Mart-clad, mustachioed Midwesterner, an imminently cheerful husband and father of three with a big, ugly suburban house and eight—count ’em—eight cars. Even his tics, such as his habit of constantly adjusting his glasses, feel so utterly normal and trustworthy. He approaches the feds as a guy who just wants to do the right thing, so naïve that he thinks he’ll actually become the company’s new CEO once all the fuss blows over and his current bosses are behind bars. But his innocence is always undercut by his evident intelligence. As he keeps reminding everyone, he is the only guy who knows the science and the business side of things at Archers Daniels Midland. He’s someone capable of big things.

The Informant!’s most winning distinction lies in what we’re able to gather of Whitacre’s private thoughts and obsessions. The use of voice-over is inspired. Rather than function in the past-tense as a way of conveying exposition or foreshadowing, Whitacre’s disembodied voice comes to us as present-tense reportage direct from his easily distracted brain, a series of frequently hilarious digressions into deceitful butterflies, polar bear camouflage, German words, and time-saving techniques, into ideas for TV shows about doubles and story of a man who drops dead upon realizing that the man across from him is wearing a tie with the same pattern—but in reverse. These interruptions are brilliantly timed and only seem like non-sequiturs until you gradually detect a pattern evolve that speaks, however obliquely, to Whitacre’s peculiar pathology, his desire to lead a double life. He’s a strange man, one who needs to talk, and listening to him let loose as the contradictions in his claims accumulate to preposterous degrees is an awful lot of fun.

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