Saturday, September 19, 2009

No lie, ‘The Informant!’ has darkly brilliant Damon amid confusing plot

By Steve Crum

To tell the truth, The Informant! is neither another funny Jim Carrey Liar Liar nor a take on the upcoming Ricky Gervais comedy-fantasy, The Invention of Lying. But The Informant! is definitely about a liar, and one can’t help laughing at it. Yet in retrospect, it is guilty laughter since the central lying character, Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), has psychotic problems that influence the fibs. Factor in he is based on a real life guy. It is sort of like admiring Sandra Bullock’s humorous, love struck character in All About Steve when, in fact, she is pretty much a criminal stalker. Funny and pathetic intersect.

Using Kurt Eichenwald’s 2000 book of same name, director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's Eleven) and his scribe, Scott Z. Burns, pretty much meet the challenge of balancing darkly humorous aspects with base facts. Yet, due to very nature of the story, too often the plot befuddles the audience in its mix. This is a compliment to Damon, since his character’s pathological lying has to be so convincing that we are hooked into his schemes. In his best acting to date, Damon is this corporate leader who is also a family man. He is also scheming against his own company, stealing from it, and confessing to it for his own, warped self esteem. That his confession is peppered with exaggerations just makes the story more and more preposterous and funny. Telling the simple truth is simply not enough for Damon’s Whitacre.

The story, told in Whitacre’s documentary-like narration (sounding like David Nelson of Ozzie & Harriet), opens at an Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) plant in Decatur, Ill., circa 1992. ADM is an agri-business super plant for which youngish Whitacre is employed as an executive particularly concerned with his company’s corn sales and lysine. The lysine, a food additive, is apparently tainted and ruining all the corn. Whitacre’s discovery and ensuing crisis is amplified through his vivid narrative: “It was like a Crichton novel....” Whitacre takes the news to his bosses, adding his concerns that there is sabotage by Japanese competitors involved. Boy, does he add his concerns. After riling his superiors up, he convinces them to send him to Japan to meet with someone who has been trying to bribe him to turn on ADM.

Meanwhile, Whitacre tells his wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) of his fears that his life in in danger, embellishing his story even more, to the point of convincing himself to contact the FBI. Skeptical at first, the agents (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale) hook into Whitacre’s story when he escalates the millions of dollars involved, and his “facts” that ADM may be part of a global price-fixing conspiracy. Playing the proverbial both ends against the middle, Whitacre obviously enjoys the glamour and attention of espionage and intrigue. The “evidence” he keeps promising the FBI seems too fantastic to believe--with good reason.

Years go by with numerous phone taps. Whitacre is not only compliant to be wired at meetings with ADM executives, he is overjoyed. His excitement, in fact, nearly blows his cover in several instances. As Whitacre’s lifestyle now includes daily spy activities, he goes too far in trying to make a case that originally did not exist. Yet the FBI and ADM string along with him.

Before giving away too much, I need to emphasize the complexity of the story line. From the beginning of The Informant!, we are led in narrative by Whitacre. When he tells us a conspiracy is afoot, we believe him, partially due to his colorful, Mickey Spillane dialogue. The problem with the film is really Whitacre’s affliction, the fact he is bipolar. Facts and events, through his eyes and words, skew left and right of truth central. Half way through the movie, I was confused, not really suspecting Whitacre had a serious truth telling problem. No doubt he loves attention, I thought, and needs to feed his ego, but don’t we all? That real crime is ultimately revealed just adds to audience confusion. But, again, our trusted narrator is unknowingly confused himself.

A beautiful tip-off to the film’s truth versus reality element is Whitacre’s subtle yanking back his toupee (we kind of suspected he was wearing such) while talking to his FBI pals. Damon pulls the scene off, and his hair back, superbly.

Other pluses include the Marvin Hamlisch score, which is quirky, jaunty, and fun--almost like tapping into Mark Whitacre’s psyche. Look for cameos, in separate and against type roles, by both Tommy and Dick Smothers. The entire cast is super, particularly Damon, who put on pounds, a mustache, and a hairpiece. This is his showcase.

The Informant! had to be a challenge to produce; it certainly challenges the audience. Soderbergh specializes in working multiple, layered plot lines toward intersection. It worked in his Ocean's series, but did not in The Good German. It almost works in The Informant!
On an A to F Grade Scale: B

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