If you think our culture is totally, horribly, permanently screwed up, go see The Informant! Because it’s a gallows-humor study of how/why we are totally, horribly, permanently screwed up, so it gives you an opportunity to consider the question. But if you don’t want to do that, don’t go. You’ll find it boring, or an example of pernicious “blank irony,” or something.
You’ll agree with LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan:
[Director Steven] Soderbergh’s apparent resolve to tell interesting stories in uninteresting ways has given his recent work a distinct anti-audience bias….”The Informant!” was made by Soderbergh largely to amuse himself. He read a story about a real-life corporate whistle-blower and decided, for reasons only he knows, that it had the makings of a wacky comedy starring an overweight Matt Damon. The result, not unlike those sounds only dogs can hear, is not the most promising way to involve people outside the director’s inner circle.
God, I love Kenneth Turan! He’s so useful! He’s a member of that new elite group, The Reliably Wrong. He’s like the Bill Kristol of film critics!
Presumably Turan wants us all to see The Insider again, Michael Mann’s typically gorgeous but bathetic celebration of the Doomed Male. The Insider gives us a corporate whistleblower, played by Russell Crowe, whose porky-man’s paradise is lost when he starts informing on his corrupt company. He has to give up being an executive fatcat who plays golf and has a perfect American nuclear family complete with suburban McMansion, mean wife, and two-point-three annoying kids.
If that kind of tragic sacrifice brings a tear to your eye, skip The Informant! It’s not the film for you.
The Informant, Kurt Eichenwald’s solemn, non-fiction, no-exclamation-point book, is about how go-getter young exec Mark Whitacre wore a wire for the FBI to get proof of price-fixing at agribusiness conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), only to imperil the government’s case against ADM with revelations of his own bottomless corruption. Whitacre’s habitual acts of fraud and embezzlement went unnoticed for years because they dovetailed perfectly with general ADM corporate practices.
Presumably Soderbergh and his screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum) recognized the black comedy in the book The Informant, thought about how it matched up with the black comedy we’ve been living in America since at least the 1970s, and set to work bringing it to the public’s attention.
It’s actually pretty straightforward, but some critics are really wrestling with Soderbergh’s approach to the material. The exclamation point in the title, for one thing, and the hideous ‘70s font titles announcing dates and locations. Then there’s the outrageously upbeat Marvin Hamlisch score—he’s the guy who scored Woody Allen’s early comedies like Take the Money and Run, but also cursed us with Barbra Streisand songs like “The Way We Were.” What’s with all the appalling ‘70s funkadelics in a film that’s so insistently set in the early ‘90s, when most of the action took place?
Well, here’s my theory: the ‘70s was when it first became clear that life in America was going to suck forevermore. This was demonstrated everywhere in a manifestation of radical ugliness. Every new building was ugly, all clothing was ugly, the colors were ugly, the hair was ugly, the music was ugly, the government was ugly, international politics were ugly, the new synthetics were ugly, the job prospects were ugly, corporate policies were ugly and their pollution was ugly, so therefore the very air and water were ugly. It was inescapable, though decorated with yellow smiley faces and disco glitter. And it stuck. ‘70s ugliness hung on more stubbornly than herpes. That was when everything went beige, and to this day, leprous beige surrounds us.
The overall visual impression of The Informant! is, correspondingly, a crappy earth-tone smear that looks a lot like ugly ‘70s filmmaking.
Critics who think The Informant! is a good film, such as Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune, try to make the cinematography sound beautiful:
Soderbergh shot the film on crisp, honey-hued high-definition digital video, set largely in generic Midwestern office spaces.
Critics who think the film is bad, such as James Verniere of The Boston Herald, harp on its ugliness:
Soderbergh, who serves as his own cinematographer, should have fired himself. Scene shots with the digital Red camera are suffused with a corn-syrupy yellow haze. Mark is surrounded by a cloudy aura as if he’s oozing ectoplasm.
But the thing is—see if you can handle this amazing paradox—the movie is both ugly and good. (Like many of the best ‘70s films.)
Matt Damon plays Mark Whitacre as one of those energetic, blank-eyed, jackass businessmen you see everywhere in this country. They all have firm used-car-salesmen handshakes and an endless supply of can-do patter sprinkled with homilies supposedly drawn from their life experience to illustrate their point, which is why you should give them money or let them screw you over somehow. Many of them are impressively educated, like Whitacre, but that never intrudes on their squareheaded go-to-guy personae. These glad-handing jerks in ties seem laughable, but they’ve taken over the world, so who’s laughing now?
Damon’s great. I admit I misjudged Damon, didn’t appreciate his early performances, found him dull till The Bourne Identity. He really has a profound understanding of how to make his regular-Joe qualities shock you when you realize what else he’s got going on.
In the case of Mark Whitacre, he’s apparently a soulless schmoe flattering himself he’s leading a heroic but tormented double-life, like Tom Cruise in The Firm, or he’s a James Bond figure using ruthless measure to outwit even more ruthless “bad guys.” He jokingly refers to himself as “double-oh-fourteen” because he’s “twice as smart as double-oh-seven.” In his voice-over narration, Whitacre obsesses on doubles, like two kinds of butterflies that look identical, but one is poisonous to birds.
This is a huge gift to film critics. We like us a nice juicy metaphor we can sink our teeth into, y’know. Michael Sragow of The Baltimore Sun explains this one to us:
The technique of the “unreliable narrator” has been employed to spectacular effect in films like “The Usual Suspects” and “Fight Club.” What’s original about its use in “The Informant!” is that it’s alternately slap-happy and dead-on metaphoric….Whitacre fixates on double things, like those nearly identical butterflies. Before long, you suspect a doubleness in his own character.
Really, you should go see this movie, even if only for the huge laughs you’ll get out of reading the reviews afterward. HIGH-larious. Note how quickly Sragow forgets the narrator is “unreliable,” though he just announced it himself, and goes right on to buy Whitacre’s doubles fixation: “Before long, you suspect a doubleness in his own character.”
But there IS no “doubleness” in his character. He can’t really be said to have the semblance of ONE character, much less the luxury of a double. All he has is a successful rhetorical performance honed over time. It seems stock and stiff, but turns out to be plenty adaptable, at least within the narrow range of dopey sensibilities that thrive in this beige world. Over and over in the movie, Whitacre sits down with FBI agents (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale), his lawyer (Tony Hale), his wife (Melanie Lynsky), his fellow executives, and they all demand very seriously that he be completely honest this time, that he tell the whole truth. And each time it gets funnier when he sincerely agrees, admits he lied the last time for various reasons, and plunges right into the latest iteration of his story, with appropriate stances and gestures.
“Before long” we get it: he can reconstruct the story forever, he’s a bottomless pit of specious accounts. His agenda IS the reconstruction of his story for an appreciative audience, because that is the height of evolutionary adaptability in a simultaneously corrupt and clueless world. At a certain point the FBI agents are momentarily flummoxed when someone asks them the obvious question, “What’s this guy’s agenda?” They’ve bought into the idea that he’s an Insider-type whistle-blower, motivated by some confusing combo of outraged morals and family values. But that account doesn’t fit the facts; the greedy embezzler account doesn’t totally fit either; nothing fits for long as the revelations of Whitacre’s activities unfold.
Or maybe they all fit, different stories at different moments of the day. Tough to tell.
However, there’s one compelling through-line to Whitacre’s actions: he’s the most enthusiastic narrator ever. The film’s previews play up his bumbling insistence on “narrating” the undercover tapes he’s making (“I’m entering the building…”), but he’s also an inveterate storyteller within the world of the film, frequently throwing out his mini-bio about being tragically orphaned at a young age and then adopted by a rich man, “which was a huge break for me!”
On top of that, he provides the narration for the film as a whole. This narration is very confusing to some, because, with a few notable exceptions, it doesn’t “match” or directly refer to what’s happening onscreen. For example, Whitacre wonders idly how to pronounce “Porsche” correctly, or why, when hunting their prey, polar bears know to hide their own black noses so that they’ll more completely blend in with their snowy landscape.
If you’re thinking that such narrated points aren’t all that hard to connect to the action in the film, well—you’re right. But critics, you know, we struggle with what might seem to be really obvious things.
Here’s Michael Sragow again (he’s almost as good as Kenneth Turan) on the problem with the film’s narration:
The problem is, the movie feels as if it’s been hermetically sealed in Whitacre’s (or maybe Soderbergh’s) head. The movie wants to be a thinking-man’s fun ride, yet lets one or two big ironies go without an imaginative detour or even, in one case, a sideways glance. (ADM’s furtherance of Big Agra is probably more damaging to consumers than price-fixing.)
This is a wonderful criticism, because the movie opens with an ironic indictment of “Big Agra” in the form of Whitacre’s paean to corn, and how courtesy of agribusinesses like ADM, corn products are now in everything we eat and wear and touch and buy. Our contemporary sense of how horrible this has turned out to be is supposed to be throbbing during this entire opening sequence. But it makes sense that Sragow missed the gist, since the movie’s plot isn’t specifically centered on the horrors of a monstrous lab-engineered corn-infused world, and none of the characters specifically crusades against agribusiness with a No Big Agra sign, and the movie isn’t called Corn: The Silent Killer.
See The Informant! if only to help out the critics who are getting migraines trying to understand it; send them your comments explaining the movie to them. Dana Stevens of Slate titles his review “The Informant! Steven Soderbergh Confuses Me!”
Why so confused? Because Stevens doesn’t fully understand the main character, Mark Whitacre:
…if I’m going to descend into a delusional netherworld with a movie’s protagonist, I need to emerge from it with some clearer sense of who he is. Soderbergh; his screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns …and, to some extent, Damon all seem unclear on just how well we’re supposed to know Mark Whitacre or how we should feel about him.
They haven’t even told us how to feel! The nerve of these filmmakers! They leave this giant hole of uncertainty in the middle of a narrative about a man who succeeds in America by reflecting back to his various audiences what they want to believe! Sheesh, that incompetent hack Herman Melville did just the same sort of sloppy work in The Confidence Man!
Dana Stevens must’ve just about had a stroke at the end of the movie when Mark Whitacre says his last line, his final indication of what he might have done and who he might really be: “I don’t know, you tell me!”
But really, the film’s not confusing, I swear. In its own way, this is realism so basic it’s a bit embarrassing, practically telling us to look around and watch it happening live. Consider all the people you’ve had to deal with who seem like blank-eyed cliché-spewing automatons, and all the everyday lying sociopaths, and all the shameless careerist shills, and the endlessly creative rationalizers who could justify killing you for a nickel. And don’t forget, mixed in liberally amongst them, all the Candide-types who ignore all the horrors and believe everything is for the best in the best of all possible beige worlds.
In other words, think of your friends and neighbors, your bosses and co-workers, you relatives, your significant others, yourself maybe, and draw the easy links in the chain to Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Enron, Archer Daniels Midland. And wonder, still, how we all got so completely screwed up.
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