Originally Posted at Cracked.com 09/22/09
“The Informant!” was not the movie I was sold. It’s hard to say whether that’s part of Steven Soderbergh’s plan, considering the events of the movie, or whether it’s yet another example of marketing selling pretty lies to make sure opening weekend is nice and fat. Like how “X-Men: Wolverine and Muttonchops McGee” was like “Hey, Wolverine headbutts a helicopter and Ryan Reynolds is Deadpool! C’mon in, it’ll be awesome!” We went in and it was more like “Hey, some hairy crybaby was banging Sacajawea until Cotton Weary snuffed her, and then Ryan Reynolds wore red sweatpants for 2 minutes.”
According to the trailer, “The Informant!” is a goofy farce about Fat Damon bungling while Sam Beckett facepalms every three seconds and mutters “ho boy!” It’s most definitely not that. Much like Soderbergh’s career, the film defies easy categorization, and is all the more rewarding for it. The only slot you can easily fit the film into is “Best Scott Bakula movie.” Farewell and adieu, “Neccessary Roughness,” you had a good run at the top.
Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a goofy biochemist with a pornstache, a hair-helmet, and 40 extra pounds hanging over his belt. He’s a good enough guy, working a lucrative job in the corn industry. His ambitions steer him away from science, towards the business side, and he finds corporate life to be unsavory. He decides to go to the feds about an international price-fixing scheme. But Mark Whitacre is not at all what he seems.
Because of that trailer, and the puffy, ruddy appearance of Damon, some might expect the film is nothing more than Soderbergh comedically riffing off Michael Mann’s “The Insider,” but what unfolds is a minor-key lark, a smart, sprawling story, set in a 90’s that looks like the 80’s, that sounds and feels like the 70’s, complete with gaudy purple titles and a gleefully cornball score by Marvin Hamlisch. In fact, the score might as well be wearing it’s own hair helmet and a poor fitting suit with shoulder pads sewn in. That’s how effective a character the music is. Damon owns the movie, but the MVP of the film is Hamlisch.
There are plenty of other low-key joys to be found beneath the orangey-brownish sheen of “The Informant!” just in case “Man, Marvin FUCKING Hamlisch piano’d the FUCK out of this movie SHIT YEAH” isn’t the gavel-banger done-deal of a recommendation some (awesome) people might think it is.
One of Soderbergh’s more interesting choices was to pepper the supporting cast with quality comedians, but cast them against type. Patton Oswalt isn’t a raging, gravy-flecked gnome, Paul F. Tompkins isn’t reviewing This Week in Britney Spears Vagina on VH1, Tony Hale isn’t a…okay he’s still pretty much Buster Bluth from Arrested Development. But the real surprise is The Soup’s Joel McHale, who nails just the right tone of subtle astonishment and bemused sympathy. If there’s any character the audience is going to identify with, it’s going to be McHale.
(Quick Side Note: How is it that, of all the hosts of Talk Soup, Skunk Boy John Henson is the only one to not ascend to Hollywood stardom? I saw him reviewing Fergie’s camel-toe at the Grammys on TV Guide Channel awhile back. Dear Skunk Boy’s agent: This is bullshit, and you suck.)
Appreciation of subtlety is going to be needed to get the most out of this film. That is to say – if you thought “Transformers 2: Car Car Binks and the Truck Nuts of Doom” was clever for including a farting alien jet, you might want to pass on “The Informant!” Also, at no point does Fat Damon stare at the camera and bellow his own name like a mentally handicapped person. Sorry guys.
The film does have a few broad moments, and they prompt very hearty laughs, but most of the humor comes from quieter moments, throwaway lines, the raise of an eyebrow, the incredulous reaction on the face of The Bakula–hell, the face of the Bakula earns measured chuckles all by it’s hangdog lonesome. One minute he looks like young Homer Simpson wearing Sam Donaldson’s Hershey’s Shell hairpiece. The next he looks like Bogart sucking a lemon made of farts. The story goes in more than a few unexpected directions, but nothing’s really telegraphed. A lot of the fun comes from discovering the twists as our befuddled FBI agents do.
That’s probably the film’s neatest trick: the use of narration as something a little less than reliable. That’s not to say Damon is openly lying to you whenever he starts in with the VO. But the banal babbling bubbling from his brain, the derailing-train-of-thought he drives all movie long is fantastic, casually deceptive, and accidentally enlightening. And when the film finally downshifts from light-and-fluffy to sad and pathetic, that VO is what provides the punch.
This isn’t one of Soderbergh’s greatest, but it might be among his most likable films. While people keep comparing it to “The Insider” due to the subject matter and the based-on-a-true-story nature of the story, I find this film has more in common with the Coen Bros “Burn After Reading.” It’s not as relentlessly mean-spirited and brutal as that film, but it deals with hapless characters in way over their heads, struggling comedically to keep their heads above water. But unlike “Burn,” not everybody drowns miserably in their own mediocrity. It’s essentially a feel-good flick about losers, spectacularly losing, with a wry little grin its face.