Monday, September 28, 2009

The Informant! Promises More Than He Delivers

That's the basic premise of Steven Soderbergh's latest film about an unstable, pathologically lying Archer Daniel's Midland executive who turns informant for the FBI, staring a corn-fed Matt Damon as the chunky executive who turns undercover agent on big Agri-business.

Soderbergh seems to be going for a film in the style of the breezy, kooky fun cops and robbers escapade that Speilberg did brilliantly with Leonardo di Caprio in Catch Me If You Can. He gives the film a fun, Seventy's font styling (even though it's mostly set in the mid-Nineties) and creates a similar exasperated cop (Scott Bacula of Enterprise fame) running the exasperating Damon as Mark Whitacre, a kind of introverted scientific genius and executive big-wig who has absolutely zero social intelligence but finds himself the center of international intrigue.

When Mark reports to his boss (Tom Papa doing a great job as ADM favored son Mick Andreas) that a mole in the company is poisoning the promising lysine-generating bugs in their grain silos and extorting ADM for a payout to uncover the mole, Andreas brings in the FBI, much to Mark's dismay (the poisoning story, we later find out, was just a ploy to deflect Mark's own failure with the bugs - but anyone with two sticks of wood to rub together can tell that Mark is one suspicious cookie). Mark quickly enlists the FBI into the intrigue of a greater scheme - international price fixing in the agri-business industry - and offers his services to help them create a series of tapes to make their case. Again, just how much of this is tall tale designed to extricate Mark from an uncomfortable situation is anyone's guess, but he does manage to get the FBI dudes to fall for it, and off we go.

Damon's Whitacre turns out to be a bit of a dunce when it comes to stealthiness, talking about the case with colleagues, showing his taping equipment to neighbors, and generally acting like a two-penny lout. Turns out that Whitacre isn't the shiniest penny in the bank, especially when push comes to shove and it turns out that ADM is wise to his antics.

Though the style of this sort of thing generally tends to be congenial and enjoyable (nine years in the poky is just a lark in movies like this), this effort just doesn't gel for me for a number of reasons: Damon's voice over, where he recites random thoughts in the middle of tense scenes that could make the top 20 of the ADD all-time-hits list, is continually distracting. In fact, Damon and Bakula both seem miscast - too "on-the-nose," as it were (one wonders if reversing the casting might have been more promising). By the end of uncovering the endless pathology that seems to be Mark Whitacre, we're no further along in sympathizing with the guy - and in fact, we kind of wish to get rid of him all together. This is the classic intentional fallacy, where the movie becomes obstreperous and boring when it's only the character that's supposed to be.

That's not to say that the audience didn't enjoy this type of acerbic humor, which I believe some certainly did. But Soderbergh has woefully under imagined this story, trapping it in a dull limbo between Fargo and Catch Me, but without either the menace or the thrill that either of those two movies supplied. Instead, we have a kind of lightweight Ocean's One, and one, as we know, is the loneliest number.

Perhaps the problem is that it's too early for the mid-Nineties to generate the kind of stylish bravado that Soderbergh is able to get out of his re-imagined fifties brat-pack, or Speilberg was able to mine with the mid-Sixties jet set. The main promise in this movie lies in dissecting the bi-polar insanities of farmland niceness and corporate culture: the intersection between paranoid small-town stability and the desire for greatness that leads one to perform great crimes against humanity and oneself. Soderbergh here has all the ingredients for such a film - he just doesn't have the temperament for it. Instead, we get a lightweight, aimless comedy that feels like water-downed Cohen brothers. It's a harmless enough thing to rent on date night. And if a fat Matt Damon is your thing, you might get a thrill. But Soderbergh can do better. This film only delivers a half Whitacre.

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