Steven Soderbergh Month: ‘The Informant!’ has a healthy blend of comedy and biopic

the informant

the informant

Slammed by populous opinion, 2009’s The Informant! has been ridiculed for being “dull,” with “laughs far and few between.” Although critically acclaimed with an IMDB rating of 6.5/10 and Metacritic score of 66, a staggering 42% user approval lingers over the film at Rotten Tomatoes, without any signs of it becoming a cult classic. Yet it should be. One might say that the positive critical reviews are biased, based on puffery by pretentiousness; or egotism to be liked by all the cool kids in the movie theater. It’s Soderbergh after all. Even with the divide, The Informant! is a great watch, not one that you might expect initially, but great nonetheless. Are you still baffled by that 42%? Well, here are a few good reasons why you should stop reading into mass opinions, and give this solid biopic a solid watch. Get your hands off your mouse, and rent The Informant! now. Whether it’s right after the credits or a week after, you will still digest the film scene by scene; and that makes up grand filmmaking: questionable, thought-provoking, and one of a kind.

It’s based on a true story, with Soderbergh-ian narrative.
Shortly after finishing Ocean’s Eleven, Soderbergh was tied to this thrilling comedy based on the nonfiction novel, ‘The Informant’ by journalist Kurt Eichenwald. Mark Whitacre, a rising player at Decatur, Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in the early 1990s, rats on the company’s price-fixing methods. In November 1992, Whitacre confesses to the FBI that ADM executives -– including himself -– had routinely met with competitors to fix the price of lysine, an additive used in the commercial livestock industry. Whitacre secretly gathers hundreds of hours of tape over several years to present to the FBI, eventually collecting enough evidence of conspiracy to warrant a raid of ADM. Whitacre’s good intentions spiral out of control from the pressures of organizing surveillance for the FBI for 3 years. In the ensuing chaos, Whitacre appears to shift his trust with attorneys and the FBI. Because of his strange behaviors, he is sentenced to prison. After nearly 10 years, Whitacre is released with presidential pardon, becoming COO of the mega-startup Cypress Systems, Inc.

While examining the classic case of corporate espionage, Soderbergh brilliantly ties in the film’s biographic element by capturing Whitacre’s comedic narrative. With impeccable timing (by a spot-on Matt Damon), the subtleness of Whitacre’s voiceovers are not only dry and witty, but clearly Soderbergh-ian. It’s no shocker that The Informant! was sandwiched in between the Ocean’s movies, for it plays like a variation of Catch Me If You Can with the comedic timing of Danny Ocean or Rusty Ryan. It’s these comedic interludes that doesn’t exhaust the audience with an over-encompassing historic overlook of its main character, unlike such biopics like Ray or Walk the Line. Instead, we get a funny crime thriller that feels like a crime thriller, not someone’s drawn-out life story.

It’s funny, honestly.
The laughter is in the script, not necessarily in Damon’s actions. No, you won’t find uncanny slips and falls, but will find humor in the dialogue. By using the film’s comedic elements on Whitacre’s bipolar behavior, instead of with gags and jokes, the audience gets a far better understanding of the bizarre situations Whitacre has to go through and unstably endure, without having to lay it out in plain view. Comedy is thus played straight, with no intentions of tracking laughter per minutes, which makes the juxtaposition of Whitacre’s meltdown all more entertaining. What we get are subtle nuggets, with such lines as “Fullfederhaltertine. You have fullfederhaltertinte all over your shirt!” as a German partner points crassly, right after a flustered Whitacre frantically calls the FBI. When voiceovers uncover Whitacre’s obsessiveness and perfectionism, it’s hard not to smile at awkward thoughts such as, “Terry doesn’t like me. He has blotchy skin. What causes that blotchiness? It has to mean something medical. He’s gonna have a stroke one day and someone’s gonna say, ‘It happens. He was blotchy.'” Who says voiceovers destroy a good film? For The Informant!, it’s comedic gold.

the informant

It’s got comedians gone serious.
Soderbergh has a real knack for casting unlikely actors in his films, and they all seem to work well. Whether it’s active porn-star Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, or mixed-martial artist Gina Carano in Haywire, placing a real touch makes the film even more believable. Heck, look how he boosted (and re-boosted) the careers of Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey. Thus, it’s only fitting to place comedians in a comedy. Although the film uses them as straight as possible, the natural talents possessed by all good comedians definitely meshes well with the film’s company environment. Joel McHale (The Soup, Community) is known for his fast-talking charm, which makes good for an accusatory FBI agent. Tom Papa’s natural sarcasm is notably fantastic for a high-talking corporate brat. The flip side to having comedians in a play-it-straight comedy is that it adds a layer of natural funniest to the film, just by having them there. Almost like waiting for the bomb to go off in a Hitchcockian suspense thriller, the audience is naturally waiting for the punchlines to come rolling in. Don’t be surprised when there aren’t any punchlines to be found, especially from those guys. But the funny is there without a doubt.

The Informant! is the type of film that gets better with repeated watching. Even while writing this article, I find myself wanting to revisit the film to pick up more humor I didn’t catch the first time. It’s a comedy wrapped in a corporate crime thriller, in the upper echelon of a Catch Me If You Can and The Social Network. Although you might not realize it now, you will soon after.

— Christopher Clemente

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