Monday, September 21, 2009
Lie Is The New Truth
Tonight: Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!
Supposedly based on actual events (though who knows what that means in Hollywood), Matt Damon stars as Mark Whitacre, a vice president at agri-business giant Archer, Daniels Midland (ADM) who gets himself entangled with the FBI in the early 1990s over some of his company's less-than-legal practices. When Whitacre brings a possible case of corporate sabotage to his bosses' attention at ADM, they decide to contact the FBI. Whitacre, put off at first, eventually agrees to help the FBI get the information they need to nail the bad guys, both inside ADM and out.
That is the foot in the door through which swarms a biblical plague of lies. Whitacre is a man from whom issues all manner of tale and pronouncement, which soon has the FBI chasing its tail as it tries to fry bigger and bigger fish. The thing is, though, almost nothing Whitacre says can be counted upon to be real. I had previously awarded the medal for Man Without Conscience to William H. Macy's character Jerry Lundegaard in the Coen Brothers' 1996 film Fargo, but I think Damon's character here takes the prize. He plays a constantly-moving target with such quiet virtuosity that I'd be loathe to trust the real Matt Damon after this performance. What begins as a cheeky and seemingly-naive self-confidence eventually turns into shocking comedy. By the film's end he has knocked every kind of social anchor out from under us, and we find ourselves doubting everything. This is very much a one-main-character picture (with some very good acting in supporting roles, especially by Scott Bakula as FBI Agent Shepherd and Melanie Lynskey as Whitacre's wife), and Damon sinks his teeth into the role. Whitacre's deficits are subtle but pervasive, and Damon almost plays a kind of Terminator, a creature who closely resembles a human being.
Steven Soderbergh has had quite the varied career in film, having acted as writer, producer, cinematographer, editor and even actor. But he's mainly known as a director, and even here he has cut a pretty broad swath, from his early film Sex, Lies and Videotape to Out of Sight and The Limey to Erin Brockovich and the sci-fi flick Solaris, to the blockbusters Ocean's 11,12 and 13. So one can't really say The Informant! is or is not his thing: it appears that everything is his thing.
But even with his resumé this film is a bit of an oddity: it's supposedly based on actual events, and yet a lot of liberty seems to have been taken with Mark Whitacre's character. His lies may be well enough documented in company and FBI records--and they make for a compelling character, one around whom it does not seem ridiculous to base a story like this; but Soderbergh (on a screenplay by Scott Z. Burns) makes constant use of voiceover throughout film, giving us (what is imagined to be) Whitacre's interior monolog as he skates through these pretty earth-shaking events. The voiceovers are a striking stylistic device, making Whitacre seem by turns observant and vapid, focused and scattered, and always prone to dwelling on the impertinent. This kind of introduces schizophrenia into the whole concept; either the film is attempting to tell an essentially true story, or it's a fabulous bit of creative writing that gives us a compelling (in a train-wreck sort of way) character. It doesn't seem to me that it can successfully do both. In the end, I think authenticity takes a step back into the shadows, and I'm fine with that. But I might have left off the scroll in the beginning that claims a link with actual events; this is an example of a film that is not better for that supposed link to reality.
Lastly, I should make a nod to the soundtrack, which is by Marvin Hamlisch. I remember him primarily for winning an Oscar for his work with The Sting in 1974, though I see now he kept pretty busy both before and after that film, working steadily up into the late 80s and winding down into the mid-90s (I've seen a number of the movies he worked on, so it's a bit odd that I'd forgotten about him). I hadn't heard his name around lately, so I was glad to see he was still kicking. His score for The Informant! has a cheesy, Muzak quality which contributes nicely to Whitacre's used-car-salesman persona. The whole film makes a bit of a mockery of wholesome, middle-American life, and Hamlisch captures this well in his score.
So, a worthy effort and a fun film. Not a great one, but good enough.