The Good: Moments of humor, Moments of concept
The Bad: Plot gets murky, Characters are universally unlikable, Acting is frequently bad, Pacing!
The Basics: Despite a good and entertaining start, The Informant! drags and becomes less funny and less interesting as it goes on.
[This was originally written in 2009, explaining the opening! Enjoy!]
Usually when I participate in a film screening, I come right home and eagerly write my review of the film I've just seen. I love being in-the-know early and sharing the scoop so that others may plan their weekends and the like. So it ought to say something that it has taken me until now to get up the enthusiasm to pen my review of The Informant! when I went to a screening on Tuesday night. Wow am I wishing I had not wasted the gas and time on that trip! The only thing worse than a bad film sometimes is having to drive a hundred miles to see it.
For those who have seen the previews for The Informant! they do exactly what preview trailers are intended to do; they sell the film and try to get people in to see the movie. Unfortunately, in the case of The Informant! one is likely to be left feeling like they have been swindled as it is made to look funnier by the trailer than the movie actually is. In fact, The Informant! is initially engaging, but it quickly belabors itself and falls into a long, humorless rut that becomes slower and much more difficult to watch. While the film is actually fairly short, my partner and I thought it dragged so much that she thought it was a three hour film, while I said it felt like a five hour endeavor.
In 1992 at the Decatur, Illinois Archer Daniels Midland corporate headquarters, Mark Whitacre is trying to solve a problem with a parasite inhibiting lysine production. The agriculture giant ADM is losing seven million dollars a month as the lysine problem stretches on and Whitacre gets a call from a Japanese scientist implying he has a way to solve the problem . . . for the right price. This act of extortion against ADM puts Whitacre in touch with the FBI and opens an investigation into the corporate practices at ADM. Whitacre reveals to the FBI that ADM is involved in a worldwide price-fixing conspiracy on corn production and the FBI begins to build a case against ADM based upon tapes that Whitacre makes for them.
But as the investigation reaches the level where litigation begins, the FBI and the Justice Department begin to have serious issues with Whitacre's credibility. Before a raid on ADM, Whitacre lets some key people in the company know the raid is coming and he even harbors the belief that if the executives of ADM are taken down, he will be made new CEO. Amid his delusions, Whitacre struggles to provide the FBI with facts and keep his family together.
The problem is that The Informant! is both slow and devolves from a caper on exposing corporate crime into a character study in delusion much the way A Beautiful Mind (reviewed here!) changes from a spy story into a mental illness tale. The analogy is not inapt and while Matt Damon is instantly engaging and funny as Mark Whitacre, the character becomes subsequently less interesting as the film progresses and the viewer witnesses his compulsion toward lying. Whitacre becomes difficult to empathize with and what is charming at the beginning becomes more annoying as the film goes on.
From the outset of The Informant! the viewer is treated to life inside the head of Mark Whitacre via voice-over. As various characters talk to Whitacre, he loses interest and begins thinking about indoor pools and travel and other things that are very much not in the moment. He blanks out at key moments when FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard is speaking to him and when his lawyer is asking him questions. And while they initially bring a smile to the viewer because of the non sequitors, the longer the film goes on, the more they distract from the flow of the movie. As well, they seem more out of place when the movie shifts from trying to amuse as a somewhat quirky corporate story to the character study of a man bogged down in a legal battle because of his actions. In other words, once the movie is not trying to be funny any longer, the voice-overs become an annoyance that tries to get back the attention of the viewer.
Outside Mark Whitacre, The Informant! is populated by characters that are entirely zeroes. All of the government agents are monolithic and lack any sense of quirk or character to make them interesting. In fact, there are few scenes with only the FBI agents or members of the ADM legal team and those scenes mainly fill in important plot points. Annoyingly, scenes that use some of the best potential talents are few and far between. So, for example, almost every scene that includes actor Tony Hale is in the preview trailer. In fact, it takes so long for Hale to enter the film, I had almost stopped expecting him to.
Particularly problematic is the use of Scott Bakula as Shepard. Bakula, who has proven he can act with charisma in films like American Beauty (reviewed here!) is particularly stiff as Shepard. Virtually all of his lines are performed with a dry delivery that make it difficult to watch him when he is onscreen opposite Damon's Whitacre he acts as a black hole into which all interest in the movie is sucked and destroyed. I understand that playing an FBI agent might not be the most exciting roll, but Bakula plays it as if it is the death sentence to his illustrious career.
Matt Damon does fine as Mark Whitacre, but he is saddled with playing a character whose journey takes him from fascinating to disappointingly droll in almost record time. Damon milks the role for all it is worth, but at times he reverts to familiar deliveries as he tries to make Whitacre funny. In fact, at one point in the film - despite the presence of the big bushy mustache - Damon channels his character from Dogma (reviewed here!) and delivers the line as Loki. Damon's performance stops being a decent foil for Bakula's lethargic impersonations of an FBI agent and director Stephen Soderbergh fails to get the best out of him.
As the peripheral characters fail to pan out and the movie treads into territory where the corporate crime investigations become peripheral to the character issues surrounding the unlikable Mark Whitacre, the film becomes progressively more boring. Sometimes, that's all there is to call it. The Informant! has a good start, but it gets boring and fast.
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© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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