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Movie Review: The Informant!

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The Informant! works. It is one of the best times I’ve had in a movie theater in ages. But maybe it shouldn’t have worked. It’s a movie chock full of nutty decisions on the part of director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's 11). How can so many bits of mismatched craziness find ways to get along?

For instance, the movie, which tells the tale of a man who plays inside informant for the FBI, uncovering his agri-business company’s price fixing, has been crafted in a style that harkens back to the ‘70s. It’s not clear why though. The movie is set during the ‘90s – which I suppose were like the new ‘70s.

At first glance, it seems a rather arbitrary creative choice. But, it works. It has an uncanny way of relating the movie – which is a meticulously detailed thriller – to a decade where such thoughtfully and carefully constructed thrillers were the rule. I’m thinking 3 Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men.

Another bit of craziness is the musical score by composer legend Marvin Hamlisch. For much of the movie, it is absent, but, when it periodically bursts on the scene, it is right there, in our face, in our ears, almost overwhelming the movie. It should be distracting, annoying.

But, it works. It lends the scenes bounciness and levity that appropriately transports them above what would otherwise be dark and serious and sets them down in a place reminiscent of the Pink Panther movies – or Woody Allen’s Bananas, also scored by Hamlisch.

Perhaps though, the biggest bit of craziness and tonal shiftiness is the main character Mark Whitacre (played by Matt Damon). He’s quite a piece of work. He has a way of avoiding attempts to pin him down. He seems at times a good family man with one unfortunate fatal flaw: He is too trusting of others, ridiculously too trusting. He sits down and immediately tells all to FBI agents, greasy corporate lawyers, and even reporters and office secretaries.

And then, just when you think you understand him, he disappears deeper and deeper into a bottomless spiral of compulsive lies. It is as if he trusts no one. The movie’s funniest running joke is how much money he has embezzled from his employer. Is it $100,000 or $500,000 or $1.5 million or …

Damon’s performance teeters on a similar tightrope always seemingly about to plummet to the street far below. If you can picture this – and it won’t be easy – the performance manages to be low-key, mundane, even deadpan and also as over-the-top as, say, George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove. The effect is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

And yet, yes, it works. And the key to making it work – and all of the other seemingly contradictory elements in the movie – is a revelation that spins Whitacre’s behavior in a whole new direction. Then, all of Soderbergh’s choices make a crazy sort of sense. I left the theater convinced, and still am that this is the role of Damon’s career.

By the way, The Informant! begins on an intriguing note that quickly gets tossed aside – how corn has worked its way into everything we eat. Okay, not quite tossed aside. There is a funny little scene late in the movie where an FBI agent sits reading a granola bar box and says, “There it is again, high fructose corn syrup.” If you’d like to see a terrific movie all about this subject, check out the documentary King Corn.

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