Venice 09: The Informant!
Posted on Monday September 7, 2009, 11:10 by Damon Wise in Cannes Film Festival
I first had my hopes raised about The Informant! when I spoke to Steven Soderbergh last year. “I think a lot of people think, based on the subject matter, that it's going to be a Michael Mann film,” he told me. “But it's more Alexander Payne than Michael Mann.” It is indeed, with a sparky, cocktail-jazzy score and a big dash of Petulia-era Richard Lester melancholy. Because though it's set in the 90s midwest, it could easily be the 70s, a time explicitly evoked in the music and the typefaces that pop up throughout. It's an odd style choice, but it's a handy one that stops the film simply becoming another true-crime story. However, these quirky elements have already divided audiences here; and while the film played very well with the public, some of the critics haven't been so nice, labelling the film “smug” and “really kind of smarty-pants” (I'm not naming names!).
Most people agree, though, that the film is very much a triumph for Matt Damon, who really excels in the role of Mark Whitacre, a biochemist working with a company that produces corn derivatives used by food manufacturers. His company, ADM, is moving into developing lysine, a food additive, but the process is flawed and ADM is losing $7 million a month, causing Whitacre's bosses to pressurise him into coming up with a quick fix. Within days, Whitacre reveals that he has had a phone call from a mysterious Japanese contact, who tells him the problem is a result of industrial sabotage by a mole and that $10 million will secure both the name of the saboteur and a better way to make lysine. The chiefs at ADM flip out and call in the FBI, but this causes unexpected ructions when Whitcacre blurts out details of another crime being committed: ADM is involved in illegal price-fixing with its global rivals, to ensure that the market rate of lysine remains high.
This is the Michael Mann part of the movie, since it requires Whitacre to partner up with the FBI to incriminate his employers. I was expecting this to involve more clowning than it does, but Damon plays it relatively straight, and his goofiness is really quite charming in this respect. After some initial reluctance, Whitacre embraces his new role with real gusto, surreptitiously taping his colleagues and trying his best to be a good spook. The second half of the movie is more interesting, though, and just when Whitacre's ramblings threaten to drown the movie (most of it, delivered in voiceover, has nothing at all to do with what appears on screen), the film starts to reveal its true colours. It's not that there's a twist, as such, just that there's more to Whitacre than meets the eye.
Damon handles this transition perfectly, and it's to his credit that a role that could easily have been a one-dimensional caricature generates, in the final reel, a lot of sympathy, not only from us but from everyone he drags into the case: his lawyers, his wife and the long-suffering FBI agent (a great low-key performance by Scott Bakula) who persuaded him to blow the whistle in the first place. Having said that, I'm not sure how Soderbergh's film will play with mainstream crowds, and Warner Bros face an uphill struggle to position the film: it's a comedy that's not that funny, and a drama that's not too serious. But if you follow the human pathos there, The Informant! emerges as a likeable, even moving film that just can't help but defy convention – much like the starry-eyed Whitacre himself.