An "Informant" too odd to be good

Sept. 21, 2009, midnight | By Warren Zhang | 11 years, 5 months ago

"The Informant" is an effective probe of Mark Whitacre's psyche, if nothing else

Charged with telling the curious story of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), an executive of chemical company ADM turned FBI informant, director Steven Soderbergh has crafted an exceptionally odd film. "The Informant!" feels more like an ill-humored but ironic 70s sitcom that manages to be a more effective look into Whitacre's mind than a serious drama would have been.

The story can be broken down into two main parts: Whitacre's takedown of ADM and the FBI's discovery of Whitacre's embezzlement crimes. The first part of the film, revolving around Whitacre's "clandestine" bugging of several important ADM executive meetings, is sadly boring. Very little happens in the first hour as the screen is occupied with Whitacre's antics, ranging from the quirky, like narrating his day for the benefit of a wire tap, to downright insane, such as fiddling with a recording device in plain sight of other ADM executives. The banal scenes are often livened by narration from Whitacre, providing insight into his bi-polar mind.

Following the dull first hour is a considerably more fascinating second hour where Whitacre's embezzlement fraud surfaces. As Whitacre's complex web of lies unravels and the FBI starts making a case against his theft of over $9 million from ADM, the story transforms into tragedy as the humorous remarks fades and the whole movie begins to feel more serious.

That also leads to another major problem with "The Informant!": for a film advertised as a comedy, it lacks much in the way of humor. The film's one-liners often fall flat, either due to the combination of the faux-cheery 70s sitcom music and bright color palette or because the jokes are simply monotonous. Soderbergh showed audiences that he can make amusing movies through "Ocean's 11" and sadly none of the comedic prowess returns for "The Informant!"

The only laughs from the movie come from Whitacre's internal narration that permeates the film, often to great effect. Damon effortlessly delivers the lines in a dead-pan tone which, when not showing why Whitacre ends up in such deep excrement, adds unintentional humor to many scenes. One particular scene that sticks out is when Whitacre ponders on the nature of the Salvation Army and philanthropists while his lawyers lay out a plan to make sure he stays out of jail. Unfortunately, the narration occasionally falters, with awkward phrases lacking logic. Even worse, the narration invades the plot progression, blocking out important snatches of dialogue that focuses on Whitacre's thinking and consciousness.

Matt Damon's performance in "The Informant!" is quite thorough and engenders a certain realism and meticulous nature. He begins the film with a fun personality but the layers of complacency quickly peel off as the movie continues. His portrayal of Whitacre's descent from American hero to a criminal under investigation of the FBI is one of the most powerful performances of his acting career. Too bad the makeup, which makes Damon's head resemble some demented offspring of Mr. Peanut, can't hold up.

Other performances in the film range range from good to compelling. Scott Bakula and Joel McHare put forth their best FBI agent impersonations and give entertaining, if not astounding performances. Melanie Lynskey, as Whitacre's adoring wife, makes do with her awfully-developed character, serving as Whitacre's moral compass throughout most of the movie.

The cinematography and music combine to replicate the uncanny feeling of watching a 70s sitcom. Audiences are treated to an interesting assortment of too bright and too happy music selections, possibly a metaphor for Whitacre's view on the world. Visually, the film pops with vibrant lighting and background, fitting in nicely with the mellow soundtrack.

Make no mistake, Soderbergh is an accomplished director and the film's effective design shows intricate attention to detail. The narration, tone and acting give what is probably one of the more genuine looks into a cultural enigma. Unfortunately, this insight often comes at the cost of watching an enjoyable movie. The funny but distracting narration, the annoying design elements and sluggish begginning of the film weigh down "The Informant!" Ultimately, "The Informant!" lacks the charm or drama that other serious biopics can pull off and the humor that made Soderbergh's earlier works funny.

"The Informant!" (108 minutes) is rated R for language. Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Tags: Review

Warren Zhang. Warren Zhang is Silver Chips Print's charismatic stallion of a news editor and ombudsman. He enjoys being awesome and reviewing (read: destroying) movies in his spare time. More »

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