From the time of this writing, it has been over a week, 10 days to be exact, since I attended the early press screening for The Informant!, and I'm just now getting around to writing about it. Why? A number of factors, not the least of which is that I'm simply confused and uncertain of how I feel about the movie. It's not that the story is overly convoluted, but rather that the whole of the film is just so different from the typical mainstream Hollywood fare. It tries new things, which is wonderful in this day and age of rehashed remakes and sequels, but at the same time, I'm not quite sure if those new things really work. Though it may be all for naught, I'll try my best to explain.
Matt Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a worker at a corn lysine plant in Decatur, Illinois. The year is 1992 and his company has been accused of price fixing by the FBI. The allegations are true, the investigations are ongoing and Mark is the man who was tasked with the illegal assignment. He has been conducting the dirty business at his home and although the FBI only has Mark's office phone tapped, his paranoia (only one of his many, many personality traits) makes him come clean to an agent who employs him as a mole to bring down the company, wiring him and tasking him with getting the dirt on any guilty party.
There you have it, and like I said, the story really isn't too out there, at least from a traditional perspective. But peel back the surface layers and you have one weird, quirky, sometimes funny, but oftentimes boring film that is bound to be seen as brilliant by some and senseless by others. What one must decide in the opening minutes of The Informant! is whether or not they are on board with the character of Mark. Many will find him off-putting and those folks I'm afraid will get nothing from this movie. Others will find him delightfully dopey as a socially ignorant dimwit unaware that his cooperation with the FBI will effectively kill his career. I personally found myself in the middle.
"Paranoid is what people call you when they're trying to get you to let down your guard," Mark narrates at one point in the movie, inadvertently explaining that he is the type of guy who thinks the world is out to get him. He thinks the World Series is rigged. He thinks government conspiracies are commonplace. He is a confused and mentally lost man who goes off on narrative tangents, his inner monologue deviating from the events at hand and discussing irrelevant matters. In one scene, after a particularly heated conflict where he and a co-worker are abusively yelling back and forth, his mind wanders off at the sight of a sweater as he explains to the audience how he doesn't like them.
In another scene, Mark tells us that there is a specific butterfly with poison in its wings. Somehow, he says, their predators are aware of this and leave them be. As he continues on, he discusses another breed of butterfly that looks exactly the same, but doesn't have poison in their wings and is free to fly around looking dangerous, though there is no real threat. In a way, this echoes his own being.
Mark has a problem, which type is not revealed until the end (though his symptoms make it quite apparent), but he's a calm guy who doesn't want to hurt anyone else. He's a gentle giant who isn't involved with things many would deem unforgivable, like murder or rape. He just takes in some extra cash on the side and has somehow illuded the FBI the entire time, at least until his paranoia gets the best of him and he confesses. Much like that butterfly, he flaps his wings optimistically with the illusion that he is dangerous, but is nothing more than a small, insignificant blip that can easily be disposed of. In this regard, The Informant! is very smart.
However, the film simply doesn't succeed as a comedy. The humor is supposed to flow from the fact that Mark is a weird guy and his thoughts never quite run parallel to the situations he faces. His random outbursts of pointless knowledge are supposed to be funny, but aren't. It takes more than random narration to produce laughs and that was all this movie had going for it.
With that said, Damon's performance is magnificent. He takes on a role we've never seen him play before and he does it well. He is the cornerstone of the film and he helps it through its many rough patches, making his character simultaneously uncomfortable to be around and endlessly fascinating. Without him, The Informant! doesn't work.
Like many other aspects, the direction was off-the-wall as well. Steven Soderbergh, who is probably most famous nowadays for his work on the Ocean's movies, utilizes a reddish/yellowish tint that works on a number of levels, one of which is that it effectively echoes the early 90's time period, making everything look a bit retro and another is that it shows an otherwise ordinary world through a different perspective, Mark's. However, it's also ugly and gives the movie a slightly grimy aesthetic that is unpleasing on the eyes, to the point of giving off headaches.
Soderbergh is a brilliant exploratory director and although The Informant! is different on a character level, it hardly breaks new ground in other areas of filmmaking. Despite his undeniable talents, he hasn't had a truly remarkable mainstream film since 2000's Traffic. His more experimental movies like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience have proven to be his most memorable in recent years and The Informant! doesn't reach that level.
The frustration some will feel from Mark's idiosyncratic personality could kill this movie for select audiences, but if nothing else, it will pique curiosities enough to make it enjoyably baffling. But much like Mark, my mind began to wander away from the events at hand, long before the film's drawn out conclusion, and although it may not always work from a traditional standpoint, the gumption it shows from its refusal to play by the rules warrants a look.
The Informant! receives 3/5