The poster for “The Informant!,” at first glance, reminded me of the poster for “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” Not only did both include two overly jolly men, but there was just something about them that made me happy every time I looked at them. Like the poster for “Virgin,” there was something so incredibly funny, and so incredibly strange about the poster for “The Informant!” that I just had to see it. It turns out, the movie is both of these things, in ways different than you might imagine.
“The Informant!” is based on the true story of one of the biggest (and weirdest) financial frauds in American history. However, it tends to take its history quite lightly. After a title card informs us that the film is based on a true story, we are treated to the sentence “So there.” Off the bat we are being told to expect nothing short of a comedic version of true events.
The corporate fraud focused on in the film is that of the major price fixing [Editor's Note: Please, don't make me try to explain what that is] that took place in the early 1990s at the Illinois food processing company Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). The seemingly innocent biochemist turned businessman Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) becomes an informant for the FBI, who looks to bust the company. However, agents Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) and Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) soon realize that Whitacre’s ineptitude might get them into more trouble than they could have ever imagined.
Commercials for “The Informant!” have made it out to be purely comical. While the film is hilarious at times, it’s not as much as a comedy as you might expect. While director Steven Soderbergh could’ve taken this exact same story and turned it into a dramatic, suspensful thriller on the level of “The Departed” or his own “Traffic.” Instead, he twisted it around and turned it into a light-hearted, comedic thriller with serious undertones. I’m happy he decided to take this path. Had the film been more serious, it probably would’ve seemed much less original.
Parts of “The Informant!” feel like a tribute to the great film noir of the past. Everything from the opening credit font, to the tangled web lies, feels right out of the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s. Meanwhile, the somewhat jazzy musical score could be traced all the way back to “The Maltese Falcon.”
Maybe the greatest reward the film gives is the pleasure of seeing Damon play Marc Whitacre with complete scrutiny. Damon pulled a De Niro for this performance and gained over 30 pounds to fully embody the everyday schlub that Whitacre truly was. In his performance, Damon is funny at all the right moments, tricky at all the right moments, and serious and self reflective at all the right moments. But most importantly, he always looks like he’s just having a good time in the role. When it doesn’t look like an actor is having a good time in a comedy, you know you’re in trouble. Damon looks like he’s having a blast.
Making up the rest of the ensemble are many comedians who now seem to be slipping into more dramatic roles. McHale, who started this week off good with his first real acting job ever in “Community” scores once again, getting one of the film’s biggest laughs with just a small facial expression.
While some perceive the humor to be a little smug and condescending, I remain a firm believer that in a smart film, structure relates to function. And here, the function is to almost give us the feeling of how overly smug some of the men must’ve been, thinking that even as they drew themselves closer and closer to being caught, that they remained invincible. Also fascinating is Whitacre’s narration. It doesn’t really do much to enhance the story or give us background details, it is basically just a stream of consciousness. It gives us a feeling of what goes through Whitacre’s head everyday. However, some of these details may actually be important. Or they may not. Maybe they’re just leading us into a big trap. The truth never is what it seems.
As the great line in “Some Like it Hot” goes: “Well, nobody’s perfect.” “The Informant!” certainly isn’t. It doesn’t really get interesting until the FBI gets involved, and often times its not as funny as it thinks it is. But it was one thing: really entertaining. It is so rare that you see a movie like “The Informant!” that provides the audience entertainment in a sophisticated and adult way. It is hip, yet it is also versed in the classics. It provides a history lesson without putting its audience to sleep.
But after all is said and done, you know what the funniest part of the film is? The fact that the real joke of the film is on you.
Recommended for Fans of: Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Catch Me If You Can, Wall Street, Traffic, The French Connection, The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown