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Matt Damon

"The Informant!"
a film review by Gary Chew

GARY CHEW/Sacramento

You've to go back to 1989 to get a first taste of what Steven Soderbergh can do with a movie. That film was "Sex, Lies and Videotape" with James Spader. Since have come pictures in some way connected with Soderbergh that have also made their mark: "Erin Brockovich," "Traffic," and, more recently "Che: Part I" and "Che: Part II."

The films I've reviewed here with Soderbergh's name on them are: "The Jacket," "Good Night and Good Luck," "Syriana," "A Scanner Darkly," "Michael Clayton," "I'm Not There" and "The Girlfriend Experience." Less memorable Soderbergh efforts I recall are "Full Frontal," and "Solaris."

As a rule, Soderbergh's movies are hip, swift and complex, usually having things going for them that make them, if not great films, at least different. That can be said of his latest directorial turn with "The Informant!" a film that flows directly from non-fiction by journalist, Kurt Eichenwald, who once covered Wall Street for the New York Times.

The Informant, published in 2000 by Random House, tells the complicated true story of corporate chicanery by agribusiness giant, Archer, Daniels, Midland Company (ADM) and one of its employees, Mark Whitacre, the highest positioned US executive, so far, to ever blow a whistle. Matt Damon has the juicy role and, convincingly, takes it to the limit,

It's been said that Soderbergh's "Informant!" is a mix of two other films by other directors: "The Insider" and "A Beautiful Mind." Both of these fine motion pictures are also taken from real life; the former about corporate deceit; the latter delving into paranoid schizophrenia experienced by an intellectual academic and Nobel Laureate. Each film has two things in common: Russell Crowe is cast in a principal role and neither is a comedy.

And so, as the buzz is having it, that's why Steven Soderbergh made "The Informant!" comedic, even though real events deal with price fixing among agribusiness competitors ("Competitors are our friends, and customers are our enemies.") as well as Mr. Whitacre's embezzlement of nine million of ADM's dollars using his penchant for prevarication brought on by bipolar disorder.

The script by Scott Z. Burns unfolds something like "A Beautiful Mind," in that the moviegoer is drawn in with few hints to indicate the maze of ins and outs and ups and downs about to ensue as Whitacre sounds an alarm with the FBI. Seems other large firms are sabotaging ADM's ability to produce lysine. An essential amino acid not synthesized in animals, lysine is sold as a food additive and better for you than agribusiness' better known product, high-fructose corn syrup.

Vividly, I remember sitting well into "A Beautiful Mind" not appreciating that most of what Russell Crowe's character is experiencing on the screen is only real in his mind, even though director Ron Howard is keeping it just as real for me. That film was revelatory to some extent, I believe, with an internal, silent exclamation rising in my brain that whispered, "Oh, that's what it's like to be schizophrenic!"

"The Informant!" doesn't smack you upside the head in quite that manner, but, slowly, as the story rolls by, it becomes apparent Mark Whitacre has mental issues and an even bigger problem with the law.

Soderbergh's decision to make his latest film subtly funny is a good call, I'd say. The intricacies of the narrative, most of which take place in the offices of law firms, five-star hotels or on discreet golf links could really drag. Executives merely strategizing for larger company profits or clever legal moves---both of which not accompanied by fits of bodily injury or high speed SUV chases, let alone one frame of bedroom hanky panky---would challenge any filmmaker.

Proving that point shines through in the way Whitacre and his family are portrayed. It's the early 90s. The Whitacres are the paragon of what could be called middle-market, mainstream Republican, professional. Ginger Whitacre (Melanie Linskey), an honest, uncomplicated wife, loves her husband and advises that what he must do in every case is simply tell the truth to the FBI and his associates. In his conventional, conservative Nineties mindset, Mark appears to be a hardworking, agreeable, straight arrow kind of guy who would bore anyone to death inside a New York minute. But don't let that fool you, Mark is quite intelligent, a biochemist with several advanced degrees and graduated from an Ivy League university. But he's been drawn over to the business-side of things and now hears the siren call to ascend ADM's corporate ladder to glory.

When Mark isn't hearing the "Song of Success," his internal brain chatter is going on about something so trivial and disconnected from matters at hand that Marvin Hamlisch inserts great music (well-orchestrated) to funny-up the moment. It works.

All of this and the recent Bernie Madoff saga, are enough to demand this movie ought to be light in tone. So, let's explore just how subtly funny Soderbergh has crafted "The Informant!" When you've got two cameos in one film given by the lowest-keyed comic duo in TV history, you can't go wrong. (On radio, it was "Bob and Ray.")

Tommy Smothers, et al

At first, I didn't even recognize Tommy Smothers playing one of the top executives at ADM. Then, a bit later into the fray, Dickie Smothers sits as the judge in a courtroom scene involving Whitacre. The Smothers are playing it straight, all the way, but how can anyone who's ever watched "The Smothers' Brothers" on CBS keep from chortling with these seventy-something dudes traipsing before a Panaflex Lens? Where's Glen Campbell, now that we really need him?

Joel McHale

Joel McHale

Next, modern-day low-balling comedians come to mind. Anybody ever watch "The Soup" on "E!"? If you have, you know who Joel McHale is: the host of that most sane cable show. I call "The Soup" sane because it's the only segment of the television machine that gives the lowdown on how really insane Reality TV shows are. McHale plays a very serious FBI agent who doesn't crack a smile about anything.

Tom Papa, another contemporary stand up comic, also plays a more prominent ADM executive. Papa, Tompkins and McHale are up there on the screen, just like the Smothers, daring you not to laugh out loud. That George Clooney is one of the film’s producers speaks volumes, given these Soderbergh flourishes.

But it's Oscar-winner, Matt Damon who threads the needle and carries the freight throughout this photoplay. His Mark Whitacre is, as they say, "a piece of work." How this character keeps track of what he's said and not said (and to whom) must surely take the IQ of a man who'd be a sure-fire standout at any Mensa meeting.

A gang of cheers for Matt. He's nearly perfect being just slightly doughy, yet unbelievably square in his deep denial with all the well-intentioned, family-guy deception. It, too, is a winning, low-ball performance that should attract attention. There's one thing, though, that's driving me nuts. Who does this Soderberghian Mark Whitacre character remind me of? Let me think... Oh yes, I've got it: A hirsute, bourgeois Joe the Plumber in suit and tie!

Now... you can pass the high-fructose corn syrup.

"The Informant!" official site.

Opens wide 9/18, at the Cinemark in Tulsa.

Check Yahoo Movies-Tulsa for theaters and times.

Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net,
Facebook.com/justin.playfair and Twitter.com/orwellingly.

Copyright © 2009, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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