The Informant! (2009) – Steven Soderbergh (Dir.), Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Tony Hale, Joel McHale
Once again, we stand at the ever-changing gates of the Soderbergh, our hands quivering as we reach for the handle, unsure of what dangers, what wonders might lurk within. Will it be a taught, engrossing exploration of drag-trafficking? Perhaps a porn star known for anal play ‘acting’? What about a sexy and stylish heist movie featuring Brad Pitt eating? What about a sequel to that movie packed with famous cameos and yet it’s utterly lifeless and bland? Maybe even the greatest cinematic jewel of all, the utter cranial mutilation of Gwyneth Paltrow? The only way to discover what awaits us is to duck our heads and charge into the thematically/stylistically muddled mind of Mr. Soder-Is-He-Pretentious?-Probably-bergh.
What do we have here? It is certainly one of the oddest movies I’ve witnessed in a while, its utter strangeness existing not only in the head of its lead character, but carefully woven throughout every fabric of this insane pastiche of styles and tones. On the surface this is a by-the-numbers tale of befuddled corporate espionage, but what really lies beneath is something far more disconcerting. While watching this with my sister Hannah, (who, for the record, has been my favorite house guest of the year (sorry Mom, Dad, Alex, college friends etc. (also, I’m aware that I just put a parenthetical within a parenthetical (yes, and I just did it again, just remember PEDMAS and you should be fine. That is, unless I start throwing about exponentials willy-nilly – ha. Willy.))) because whenever I asked “What do you want to do?” she replied with “Fuck, I’m in my thirties and I’m married. Get me wine and take out.” It was the best.) I was immediately consumed by a thick veil of bemusement. Matt Damon’s mesmerizing portrayal of real-life whistle-blower Mark Whitacre takes center stage instantly with his hair-Inception, a toupee-on-top-of-bald-cap-on-top-of-luscious-Damon-mane. We’re thrust into the center of a price-fixing scheme with the dastardly folks in agra-business, the people almost directly responsible for what is misleadingly named the Omnivore’s Dilemma (I picked up that book really hoping for it to be the long lost sequel to Jurassic Park. I was disappointed. And horrified. CORN WILL KILL US ALL); we’re served wire-tapping, blackmail, viruses destroying product, a whole panoply of plot-points so perfectly preposterous they’d give Michael Crichton a boner.
Here’s the thing: none of it makes sense. It’s like watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy where a good two thirds of the tale feel as though they’ve been hacked out in the interest in time. We never see the antecedents to these intricacies, leaving everyone in the audience scratching their skulls and grasping at straws. Soon, the FBI are brought in and Whitacre turns into the exclamatory agent of the title, dishing the dirt on his crooked coworkers and dragging his company through the metaphorical muck. Scott “That Dude Who Sometimes Goes to Other Dimensions And Looks Like Other Dudes” Bakula is the hapless and helpless agent dragged along on the goose chase of insanity, also bringing along a terrifyingly not-Jeff-Winger-and-not-making-fun-of-celebrity-wastes-of-existence Joel McHale. It becomes clear as the mystery deepens and the plot thickens and the milk curdles and the hand shakes the barley, that the audience isn’t the only party left in the dark. In fact, everyone is. One by one, they all start tumbling into the pit of crazy that is Mr. Damon. Piece by piece, the fabric unravels revealing the deeper truths. Yes, this is technically a spoiler, but it doesn’t matter. This ain’t about plot. This is about crazy. This is about a man who fundamentally doesn’t understand concepts such as ’empathy’, ’emotional causality’, ‘trust’ and ‘honesty’. You know all those narrative threads that didn’t seem to coalesce into anything resembling sense? Yeah, they didn’t happen. It was fabricated. Everything. Matt Damon is, in actuality, a dirty liar, liar whose pants are perpetually on fire. What Soderbergh does so skillfully is draw you into the mind of a man who misses the basics of human emotion on several essential levels. The more we look into his mind, the more confused we see that he is. Once the other shoe FINALLY drops, smashing through of window of sensibility we’ve come to assume from the world of this movie, everything is called into question. Nothing Damon says can be trusted (I feel like that’s a good rule for life. NEVER TRUST MATT DAMON. He knows what he did.)
Once again, this bad boy is all style over substance, as will of Soderbergh ventures. Luckily, this is some good substance. Though the movie is set in the early nineties, almost every frame seems stolen from a 70s spy flick, taking what is, at its basic level completely banality, and elevating it to a camp extreme. It’s as though Matt Damon is constantly singing his own theme song in his head and we, the audience, get to hear it. There are glaringly obstructive musical cues during even the most uninteresting scenes of people walking down hallways or driving through the mid-west. The exclamation point hidden within the title is the perfect punctuation for this tale. It is the overwhelming sense of extremity flooding every aspect of this movie, an unnecessary weight paid to what is essentially a failed court case. In any other hands this would have been a dirge of such yawnful proportions that the FDA could have graded it a lethal horse tranquilizer. But it isn’t in anyone else’s hands. This is a Soderbergh. This is no tale about how US agriculture is ruled by the greedy monolithic corporations dragging us into an Inferno of obesity and poor health. This is about the labyrinthine workings of Mr. Whitacre’s brain and how utterly confuzzling the whole thing is.
Possibly the best example of his misunderstanding is when, after wearing wires and implicitly sending all of his coworkers to jail, he declares that after all of the dust has settled, he’ll be CEO. Bakula looks at him with a visage of pure befuddlement and says, “Mark…you won’t be able to work at this company again. You’ll have destroyed it.” We see Mr. Damen’s face, we see it hear, calculate and keep it’s resolve, its impenetrable crazy. It is the face of the girl that shows up at your door at 3am asking why you didn’t propose on the second date. It is the face of a serial killer after being told that having seven severed legs stocked in his closet isn’t normal. It’s the face of something beyond us, a being with a cloud of comprehension constrained to a plane of existence that is not our own.
This movie is confusing, hilarious and bizarre. See it. Also, I wish everyone had jumped in the air and freeze-framed in high-five position while the end credits rolled. That would have been way better. But then again, I want that ending for every movie (notable exception: Schindler’s List).