Movie Review: The Informant! (2009)

While his Ocean's Eleven co-stars Brad Pitt and George Clooney worked on the Coen's uneven "insider" comedy Burn After Reading, Matt Damon teamed up once again with director Steven Soderbergh and producer Clooney to create the movie that Burn After Reading should have been.

Derived from Kurt Eichenwald's fascinating book, The Informant! which was penned by Bourne Ultimatum, PU-239 screenwriter Scott Z. Burns chronicles the true story of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) whistleblower Mark Whitacre.

With his unbelievable actions, Whitacre became not just "the highest-ranking corporate whistleblower in U.S. history," but ironically one for whom we quickly realize that that's the least interesting fact about about his incredible journey.

However, as evidenced in the past, Soderbergh is no stranger to biopics about unlikely heroes or films about larger than life individuals from Erin Brockovich to Che. Therefore, he had no interest in going down the same Brockovich path one more time nor did he desire employing the approach utilized by Michael Mann in his brilliant film, The Insider.

To keep things fresh and uniquely offbeat as is his trademark (via an amazingly diverse resume and penchant for imbuing his films with a large number of tonal changes and emotions), he gave Burns the creative challenge of his career with the decision to shape it as a comedy.

The facts remain the same but luckily they're so outlandish that one can't help but chuckle as the film moves along — especially when we realize that there may be much more to the accounts and tape recordings made by Damon's Whitacre than he admits to the F.B.I. every single time he repeats, "that's it, I've told you everything."

And sure enough the humor fires on all cylinders right from the start due to Burns' brilliant approach to employ a rambling, stream-of-consciousness narration for our protagonist.

Going about his day in Decatur, Illinois, Whitacre may be stuck in a meeting or in traffic onscreen but on the soundtrack, we're presented with a postmodern take via Burns' freewheeling narration that often has little to do with the events they're synced up with in the final edit... until that is, some of the information starts to pay off later on as the truth begins to unfold.

It's discerning the outpouring of information and filtering it with typical wanderings of a human mind that makes The Informant! both far more dazzling and far more intellectually stimulating than a straightforward comedy or ironic puzzle.

And ultimately it's a movie that one must simply sit back and marvel at in appreciation since, like a great magic show, we're so distracted by the odd outbursts and our own laughter that we neglect to realize the figurative trap door or sleight of speech playing before our eyes.

As Matt Damon recently remarked on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, once you start revealing the plot, you spoil the movie and it's both an astute observation and a critical conundrum since you'll want to do more than just say to a friend, "trust me, go see it." Yet at the same time, he's absolutely right, since I felt it worked much better personally walking in with only a vague idea of what I was going to see.

Upon exiting the theatre, I realized that not only had I laughed so hard that I feared I was going to be forcibly removed but that I'd also just seen one of the best films of the year so far.

Moreover it's one that I'm ready to wager will not only garner Burns an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, Damon a nomination for Best Actor in yet another multifaceted performance of charm, humor, pathos, and integrity we've come to take for granted, but also a Best Original Score nod to Marvin Hamlisch.

While there's so much more to note about the film (and all involved must be commended), it's these three individuals who really make the movie sing.

Obviously the effectiveness of the film all started with the ingenious screenplay. Yet on the drive home I realized that Damon had an amazingly difficult task of having to give two performances (in the frame and later in the recording studio for the audio) without making it seem overly hammy and trying to keep the internal and external both separate but in his frame of reference throughout.

Likewise, Hamlisch's '60s cold war era spy movie meets swinging Blake Edwards comedy score is the ultimate accompaniment for a film about a whistleblower who compares himself to James Bond ("only twice as smart"), Tom Cruise in The Firm, and the Michael Crichton novel Rising Sun.

A breath of fresh air at the multiplex, The Informant! is a triumphant reminder for Soderbergh enthusiasts regarding the level of talent possessed by the filmmaker, cinematographer, camera operator, and driving force of his rapidly made intriguing features.

At the same time, the film celebrates his innovation in flipping genre conventions around and the fact that — with the exception of the Ocean's Trilogy — Soderbergh never makes the same movie twice nor stays in a nice cushy "type."

Going from studio pictures to movies made on the cheap and employing indie do-it-yourself enthusiasm throughout from sex, lies and videotape to Out of Sight to King of the Hill to Traffic to The Limey to The Informant!, even when a Soderbergh film divides the critics and/or audiences, his tenacity and unwillingness to take an obvious approach is inspiring.

And it pays off exceedingly well with this film, which not only aces Burn After Reading but does so with facts and at the same time, reminds us post-Jason Bourne and when I fear he's in danger of typecasting just why we were so enamored with Damon's talent as a character actor over a decade ago.

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