Note: In the following joint DVD review, both John and Tim provide their opinions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.
The Film According to John:
Those viewers hoping that director Steven Soderbergh's 2009 "The Informant!" would be a snappy send-up of whistle-blower movies like Michael Mann's "The Insider" might be surprised and a little disappointed that Soderbergh's film is not a full-blown parody. It's much more subtle than that, often either never quite making up its mind if it wants to be a comedy or a serious drama or so nuanced a comedy it seems like a straight drama. I found it ironically, disconcertingly, intermittently funny, but maybe that's just me. And, fortunately, star Matt Damon saves the show with a perfectly unhinged portrait of the main character.
The story, based on Kurt Eichenwald's book of the same name, recounts the misadventures of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a division president with the Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) Corporation who became directly responsible for one the biggest antitrust cases the FBI ever prosecuted. That the well-educated (Ph.D.), well-positioned, and well-meaning Whitacre was also one of the most paranoid, bipolar, manic-depressive head cases in U.S. corporate history makes for a kind of schizophrenic movie. Which is nothing new for Soderbergh, who has produced a keenly varied film output over the years, from heavy dramas to pretentious melodramas to lighthearted capers ("Sex, Lies, and Videotape," "The Limey," "Erin Brockovich," "Traffic," "Oceans Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen," "Solaris," "The Good German," Che").
The time covers a period from the early 90's to the mid 2000's, 1992-2006 to be exact, starting with Whitacre working for ADM, a huge agrichemical conglomerate that turns various agricultural products into just about everything you can name. The trouble was, no matter how much money the company was making, the greedy bosses couldn't seem to stop themselves from engaging in illegal price-fixing schemes. Whitacre got wind of the conspiracy and went to the FBI.
Now here's the thing: Instead of Whitacre simply handing over incriminating documents to the authorities, the FBI enlisted his aid in videotaping, audio taping, and covertly surveilling the company culprits. Before long, Whitacre began thinking of himself as a full-fledged, international spy; and after that he became almost completely unbalanced, committing acts that would seem totally unbelievable if the story weren't true. As one falsehood mounts upon another, it becomes harder for the viewer to understand if the filmmakers intend one to sympathize with or root against the protagonist. Is this a comedy or isn't it?
To underscore the comedic aspects of the film, Soderbergh not only puts an exclamation mark after the title but he enlists the aid of veteran movie composer Marvin Hamlisch to do a breezy, sometimes screwball background score. So there is no doubt the director means for us to take everything tongue in cheek. Just where sympathy for Whitacre turns into pity or irritation may be up to the individual viewer.
Nevertheless, Damon's portrayal of Whitacre is a joy. The mild-mannered, often delusional Whitacre couldn't be more different from Damon's characterization of supercool, super-rugged superspy Jason Bourne; in fact, Whitacre is more like Damon's mousey Linus Caldwell in the "Oceans" films, so at least Damon had a handle on that type of character previously. Damon is wonderfully droll as Whitacre, never overplaying the role. Watching him puff up one minute and squirm the next is a delight. He reminds one here of William H. Macy in "Fargo" for his deadpan demeanor. Damon won't get an Oscar for the part, comedies seldom get such accolades, but it's deserving of one; it's that good.
The supporting cast is also pretty impressive, although they don't have a lot to do. The two primary co-stars are Melanie Lynskey as Whitacre's long-suffering wife, Ginger. Or is she long-suffering? The filmmakers make us wonder just how much she knows or understands about her husband's situation. And there's Scott Bakula as FBI agent Brian Shepard, an honest guy trying his best to get Whitacre's cooperation and nail down a big case against a corrupt corporation. But trying to deal with Whitacre is an exasperating task. Also look for brief appearances by movie tough guy Clancy Brown and, more surprisingly, both Tom and Dick Smothers.
Adding to the film's feeling of authenticity, Soderbergh shot most of it on location in the Midwest where the actual story took place, and he seems to have used a good deal of natural lighting (or something simulating it) in the process. I'm sure he meant for the verisimilitude of the settings to increase the film's feeling of schizophrenia as the movie's contrasting tones--comic and earnest--tend often to collide.
In any case, "The Informant!" is an odd film, one you may not expect coming. Which, if anything, gives it an extra edge and punch. I just wish it had a little more edge or punch.
John's film rating: 6/10
The Film According to Tim:
I'm sure Steven Soderbergh's "The Informant!" couldn't have come at a better time, considering our economic state when he made the picture. After all, starting in late 2008 it took only a few greedy executives to cripple literally our entire economy to levels not seen since the Great Depression. This is a film that explores how greed, corruption, price-fixing, book-cooking, and taking down a corporate business happens at the executive level. The biggest underlying theme concerns how well some people can lie, for which it is unfortunate we don't have Congressman Joe Wilson to call them out.
"The Informant" is based on true events from a book written by Kurt Eichenwald, with Scott Burns providing the screenplay. The film takes place in Decatur, Illinois, at the company ADM (Archer Daniels Midland), a huge conglomerate responsible for chemically producing corn additives for numerous food products. Their head chemist and Vice President, Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), takes us on a road through the early 90's when he assumes his own company may have a mole in their midst and possibly some price-fixing going on at higher, executive levels. Of course, the FBI get involved, and they are lead by special agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale). Agent Shepard asks Whitacre to play spy and get as much information on tape and video as possible. Whitacre, being a smart enough guy, seems to enjoy doing the dirty deed. Nevertheless, he manages to fumble his way through it, as well.
I will say, after seeing the previews for this movie, it doesn't quite measure up to what I was expecting. It appears to be delivered as a light comedy, but considering the nature of some of these people and their sickening hunger for greed, I found it hard to find too many amusing moments. Sure, there were some laughs, and even the musical score from Marvin Hamlisch gave the overall sense of a spy-like comedy. What's more, Matt Damon's constant narration over his character drew a few chuckles, but there were also times where it made no coherent sense. Sometimes the narration was like listening to the ramblings of something out of the head of Homer Simpson. I'm sure it was all meant to be funny, but in many instances it was completely odd.
It isn't as if the film plays on too much style over substance, though. In fact, there's practically too much substance, and as in all films that deal with a trail of secrecy, you really need to pay attention or you'll get lost in the woods. Not that it tarnishes the movie too much, but it does leave you wondering what you got into after you purchased your ticket. I know I can find espionage and spy films a bit cumbersome, and "The Informant" can be slightly taxing but not without being a little entertaining, too. Although there's actually a lot of drama beneath the surface of the narrative, Soderbergh chooses to deliver something cannier in approach. In some areas it works and in others it fails. The biggest problem is our failure to connect and feel sympathy for any of the characters. After all, the film focuses on corporate executives, not exactly the most-beloved people in the country right now.
The best thing about "The Informant" is quite simply Matt Damon. He really delivers a very well-driven performance. Even if the film does not ride the wheels of greatness, Damon's performance is well worth the effort. True, once you do get to know him as the plot unfolds, you may also not find a lot of sympathy for him; however, he's one of the few things in the movie that manages to connect and command a screen presence. It was nice to see him as someone much more vulnerable than his Jason Bourne character. The film does give us that Soderbergh approach we're used to in his movies, but it's Damon who steals the show in every way. Not that I'm being biased towards Damon; it's just that without him, this film could have been a complete flop.
Overall, the film failed to connect with my interest or curiosity. I found myself sitting back for the ride, because there's a fine sense of style and moderate laughs, but the chaos becomes so abundant that you feel like your brain is being bounced around in a pinball machine. Once you see what's going on, you realize you really don't like anyone in the film. Therefore, there's no sympathy factor, leaving very little for anything redeeming. Granted, as the corporate executive go down, it's obvious everyone will lose. Nonetheless, you still have this sense of anger towards the narrative. It's certainly not a "feel-good" film, even though it tempts you into thinking it is. Then again, this is a movie that is more about deception than anything else.
All the ugly cars! Granted, Mark Whitacre was a wealthy V.P. and had all the nice cars, but everyone else has crappy, boxed-up looking Chryslers. I realize the film is capturing the era of the 90's, but most the vehicles in this movie looked more like something you'd see in the 70's. Perhaps I'm getting too old and probably don't remember cars looking that dreadful in the early 90's, but did Soderbergh have to use so many ugly cars? Not to mention, some of the ties these guys wore looked like something from the ugly tie rack at any discount clothing store.
To sum up, we find the proper technique and material in "The Informant!," a good performance from Matt Damon, a few laughs, and, since the movie's theme is about deception, plenty of twists and turns. However, if you're expecting to get a Whopper with all the fixings, let me warn you to expect a Whopper Jr. The previews make it look like all the icing on the cake is there, but it ends up being an affair that will work just fine for a video rental.
Tim's film rating: 6/10
First, you have to know that Soderbergh shot the movie using digital cameras. That makes all the difference in the world, because no matter how good the transfer, and for standard def, this is probably as good as it can be, the source material is suspect. I saw the movie in a theater, where the blandness of the photography matches the blandness of the main character's personality, and I found the SD reproduction looking even softer, which may be good stylistically but is not all that good to look at.
Warners use an anamorphic transfer to get the film to disc in its original aspect ratio, 1.85:1. The picture they obtain shows up dull, pale, flat, but very, very clean (an absence of grain will do that, as well as mess with any realistic texture the picture may have had if Soderbergh had used conventional film stock). Indeed, it looks like a good standard-definition television broadcast, with modest delineation despite a small degree of haloing around objects. Soderbergh, as I said earlier, also appears to have done much of the shooting under natural lighting conditions, or something simulating it, which results in a lot of window and sunlight glare and a dim veil over the image much of the time. Nothing can improve that situation.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 has hardly anything to do. With the exception of Hamlisch's background score, the soundtrack is composed almost entirely of dialogue, so don't expect much in the way of sonic firepower or surround activity. In its favor, the dialogue does sound clear and lifelike, with little sign of brightness or harshness.
There is not much to talk about in terms of extras. The only things you get are a few deleted scenes, four them totaling a little over six minutes. Beyond that, there is a series of trailers and promos at start-up only; twenty-seven scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Hero or goat?
How well you take to the novelty of "The Informant!" may depend on how well you like Matt Damon in a semi-comedic role. Tim and I, thinking alike on the subject, found the film amusing enough but almost never laugh-out-loud funny. It's a rather strange project in that regard, a dark tragicomedy of sorts, with probably a limited appeal for the mass marketplace.