The story's corny but true: the farmer takes a bribe
Thursday December 3, 2009
FILM THE INFORMANT! (M) 4/5 108 minutesYOU never know where you stand with Steven Soderbergh, but you cannot accuse him of resting on his laurels - or making the same film twice. His latest, The Informant!, is a comedy on the unlikely topic of price-fixing in the agricultural industry. Matt Damon stars as Mark Whitacre, a young executive who blew the whistle on the scandal in the mid-1990s, then proved to have form as a liar and crook in his own right.To tell this bizarre true story, Soderbergh adopts a strenuously facetious style that recalls the Coen brothers without the showy set-pieces. The camera stays locked into position, the brisk rhythm hardly varies, and the supporting actors (many of them well-known comedians) deliver multiple slightly skewed variants on the theme of folksy American officialdom.As if all this wasn't enough to connote wackiness, there's wall-to-wall rinky-dink muzak by Marvin Hamlisch, who wrote the scores for most of Woody Allen's early films as well as for The Sting (1973). To play Whitacre, the normally debonair Damon has acquired a paunch and a walrus moustache; on one level, his gleefully nerdy performance is a malicious parody of Russell Crowe's solemn turn in Michael Mann's anti-tobacco thriller The Insider (1999).While The Informant! is never less than entertaining, one thing that makes Soderbergh's work so distinctive is that he is not afraid of asking us to contemplate political and financial systems in all their mundane detail. At the same time, he consistently blocks our efforts to understand or identify with his lead characters: Mark Whitacre here remains as much of a mystery as the call-girl played by Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, or Che Guevara.Not that Mark is a blank slate. On the contrary, his mild manner conceals a endlessly surprising inner life. Regularly, we hear him musing in voiceover on whatever topic takes his fancy €” the German language, the hunting habits of polar bears, or the novels of John Grisham. Wonderfully scripted by Scott Z. Burns, his stream of consciousness runs through The Informant! as an absurdist counterpoint to the narrative - but not as any kind of explanation for his behaviour.Soderbergh's ruling question might be: what does it take for an individual to reshape his or her environment? Where a totally focused personality like Che stands a fighting chance of advancing his cause, a nutcase like Mark Whitacre can wreak havoc simply because there's no predicting what he'll say and do next. Perhaps, after all, each of this director's films contains the elements of a self-portrait. It can't be mere coincidence that his autobiography from a few years ago was titled Getting Away with It.