Combustible Celluloid
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With: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey, Rick Overton, Tom Papa, Tom Wilson, Clancy Brown, Tony Hale, Ann Cusack, Allan Havey, Rusty Schwimmer
Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 108
Date: 09/07/2009

The Informant! (2009)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Modified Corn

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The exclamation point at the end of the title is a key to how Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! works. (It has the same effect as the one on 1980's Airplane!) It's a peculiar combination of a potentially big story told with deadpan blandness, with an absolute nothing of a lead character -- complete with a paunch and a bad moustache -- who imagines himself as something more.

Matt Damon turns in a canny comic performance as Mark Whitacre, a scientist working in the office of a giant corporation. His job is to make food more profitable, such as using high fructose corn syrup instead of sugar; it's the mid-1990s and they're working on a way to feed corn to chickens without killing them. When things aren't going so well, Mark blames the problem on a mole, and the FBI is called in. After meeting the nice-looking Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula), Mark decides to go informant, turning in all his bosses for price fixing. Mark digs himself deeper and deeper, and every few minutes, it turns out that something he's been saying a few minutes earlier was yet another lie.

It all gets very complex, but the film's driving force is Mark himself and his layers of self-delusion. Mark very often narrates to himself, and his words very often have little to do with what's going on at the moment (while being grilled by the FBI, he thinks about neckties). He sometimes seems utterly clueless, and other times he's remarkably clever, and this duality keeps us watching. (Actually, he's not unlike the displaced heroine of this year's other Soderergh film, The Girlfriend Experience.)

He continually re-asserts himself as a simple, straightforward guy who's trying to do the right thing, but his lies and his goals grow ever muddier. It's more a downward spiral into one man's intellectual mousetrap, but director Soderbergh thankfully, refreshingly, plays it for laughs rather than for hand-wringing. He and composer Marvin Hamlisch routinely play cheerfully rinky-dink music on the soundtrack, which has the effect of making an otherwise dramatic FBI raid look ridiculous. It's like a funnier version of Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can (2002); but more cynical, and with less heart or depth. It's like a razor, sharp yet thin.

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