Catching liars is fun. Watching someone lie badly is funny. Watching someone lie badly when you know the truth is funnier. Realizing you’ve been lied to isn’t funny at all. Lies can be a valuable tool when you’re the dumbest guy in the room and when you manage to get away with lying to everyone else, it makes you the smartest guy even though the truth will out. Director Stephen Soderbergh’s latest film, “The Informant!”, is built entirely out of lies but not in a surreal/everything’s subjective-kind of way. It’s a film about the usefulness of lies and how like anything that’s fun, it can become addicting and it can be abused. It’s a heavy theme but carried with the lightness Soderbergh brought to the “Ocean’s” movies, “The Informant!” is absolutely delightful.
Opening with a title card which informs us that the following story is based on real people, events, locations, etc…”So there,” the movie begins with Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre, a high-level executive for ADM, a global food conglomerate based in Decatur, Illinois. From the opening credits where he tells us about the uses of corn far beyond the simple starch we know and love, Mark has all kinds of fun facts, comments, and observations he would like us to know. The film takes place in 1992 but Mark has Twitter in his brain and he doesn’t have a 140-character limit. There’s a lot of funny plot-based events in “The Informant!” but you’ll walk away with Mark’s mind-tweets echoing through your brain.
Whitacre, a harmless and genial guy, decides to turn whistleblower on ADM when he learns of their price-fixing. Why? Because he’s just a simple, honest man who wants to do the right thing. That’s what the FBI believes and that’s what we believe because, by golly, look at him! He’s got two adopted kids because he was adopted after his parents were killed in an auto-mobile accident when he was six (or is it three? I don’t remember); he’s got a loving wife, he sends out Christmas cards, and how could a man who spends his free time musing about trivia concerning the hunting habits of polar bears be an untrustworthy guy? No, this is a good guy and he’s doing the right thing.
There’s no arguing with that reasoning when you see Whitacre bumble his way through his undercover work as he taps on recording devices and looks straight into surveillance cameras hidden inside desk lamps. His spy skills would make Maxwell Smart blush except… Whitacre’s really, really good at lying. He knows how to handle people and it’s not limited to just the characters you’re watching.
Soderbergh plays the film perfectly with a 70s vibe despite the 90s setting, punctuated by a jaunty score from Marvin Hamlisch. The eras work together well because while the movie has a 70s look, Whitacre happily compares his life to something out of a Michael Crichton or John Grisham novel, and it doesn’t feel like a “Hey, we’re in the 90s!”-moment, but a funny and perfect way to describe Whitacre’s restrained-intellect and kiddie-pool depth while making him even more likable. Being likable is one of the most important things someone can be.
Matt Damon has “likable” down to a science. After he dies, scientists will study him and see if they can isolate the “likable” gene and then sell it to douchebags, probably in the form of an energy drink. But let’s get past “Matt Damon Thunderfluid ” and talk about why his performance is better than just his natural charisma or the fact that he put on 20-30 pounds for the role*. Yes, make-up and physical alterations are required to make someone as good-looking as Damon look like a desk drone living in Decatur, Illionis. But performance matters and especially for this role, where so much of Mark’s character comes through his odd internal memos, that completely internalizing the character is essential and as he usually does, Damon makes it look easy. I was looking through his filmography and he hasn’t had given a bad performance in a leading role in a major motion picture since 2000**. Few of his contemporaries have his versatility and while he’s got an Oscar for screenwriting, he’s long overdue to have one for acting.
Some folks may turn on “The Informant!” when it makes a strong twist in its third act but the way it transformed makes it more than just the light treat like the “Ocean’s” movies. It not only has a strong idea at its core but that idea sneaks up on you until you’re wondering why you didn’t see it all along. I know I walked out of “The Informant!” wondering if anything anyone ever told me was true so I want to make the following statement as clearly and directly as I can:
You should go see “The Informant!” It’s delightful, witty, thoughtful, and a great time at the movies. So there.
Rating —– A minus
*A feat I don’t find impressive. People put on that kind of weight all the time. We don’t congratulate them on it.
**That’s not to say that he’s been awful in supporting roles or in smaller movies. But everything that he’s been in that I’ve seen starting in 2001, he’s been amazing.