Warner Bros. // 2009 // 108 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // February 23rd, 2010
Based on a tattle-tale.
Matt Damon in one of 2009's best movies that no one saw arrives on Blu-ray.
Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity) is a scientist-turned-vice-president at the Illinois agricultural corporation ADM. One night, to cover up a problem that's been occurring at the company's plant, Whitacre tells a lie about some corporate espionage; from there, the floodgates are open as Whitacre becomes the FBI's chief witness in a giant price-fixing case headed up by two straight-laced agents (Scott Bakula, Enterprise, and Joel McHale of Community). Unfortunately, there's more to Mark Whitacre than anyone initially anticipates. Much, much more.
Is there a director currently working who's more interesting or prolific than Steven Soderbergh? With the possible exception of Richard Linklater, I can't think of one. Consider this: in 2009, the same year that Soderbergh directed his fantastic new comedy The Informant!, Soderbergh also helmed the indie drama The Girlfriend Experience and the two-part historical epic Che. While certainly the most commercial of his 2009 efforts, The Informant! is far from the breezy Hollywood fare of the director's Ocean's series; like its central character, the film is smart and deceptive, continually revealing surprising twists as it hums along as though everything is fine.
It's particularly interesting that Soderbergh directed both Che and The Informant! in the same year, as they represent two totally disparate approaches to telling "true" stories. While Che expanded its focal character's life into a kind of epic myth, Soderbergh has turned the true story of Mark Whitacre (the film is based on a non-fiction book by Kurt Eichenwald) into a seemingly light comedy that's black and sad the more you examine it. His approach to the material is the best thing about The Informant!, from the way he presents each new twist (never being too heavy-handed; it's always just a new wrinkle, even when it's potentially devastating) to his use of Damon's voice-over as unreliable narrator. Whitacre's voice-over interjections are often just stream-of-consciousness thoughts that don't necessarily have any bearing on what's going on, but that's entirely the point -- Whitacre is disassociated from what's happening to him, instead looking from the outside in as though he's watching a movie (it's no mistake that at one point, we see him take in a showing of The Firm, which actually has a big impact on what eventually takes place). The score from Marvin Hamlisch tips its hand a little too hard, pushing the light bounciness to a point where it becomes almost oppressive; it works to underline the tone of the movie when it isn't needed. I didn't dislike the score, and in smaller doses would have been an effective part of the larger piece. I only wish Soderbergh and Hamlisch would have pulled back a little.
At the center of the film is a terrific performance from Matt Damon, who continues to take challenging roles and push the limits of what it means to be a movie star (Brad Pitt and, to a lesser extent, George Clooney are also good for this). Even when Damon takes on a more "conventional" film, like the Bourne series, it's not exactly what we expect from an action film or from him as an action hero. He continues to make interesting character actor choices despite his leading man looks and status, and while it would have been easy for him to hide behind funny glasses and a bad hair piece in The Informant!, Damon doesn't just let his wardrobe do the heavy lifting. He makes us know Whitacre without ever really understanding him (to see the film is to understand that distinction); we can only predict that we can't predict him, and there's something predictable about that. Ably supporting him are Scott Bakula and Joel McHale, who actually score big laughs from playing their roles super-straight. Bakula, in particular, hasn't been this good in a long, long time, and The Informant! is a nice reminder of what he's capable of in the hands of a director who knows what to do with him. A number of stand-up comedians, including Patton Oswalt, Tom Papa, Paul F. Tompkins and, Thomas F. Wilson and Dick Smothers fill out the supporting roles. It's an interesting casting choice, once again underscoring the sly comic tone that Soderbergh is going for, but it's never distracting -- if you didn't know who the comics were (they all play it straight), you would just think they were more actors. It's that kind of inspired creativity that makes Soderbergh such an interesting and engaging filmmaker.
Warner Bros. offers a sparse but satisfying package for The Informant! on Blu-ray. The film is presented in a VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer that looks pretty terrific. Soderbergh shoots the movie in a very '70s style, meaning lots of blown-out, naturalistic lighting, warm colors and heavy shadows, and the disc does the visual scheme justice. While I originally attributed the mostly grainless, too-smooth image to an overabundance of digital noise reduction, it turns out I was wrong; The Informant! was shot on high def digital cameras, meaning the Blu-ray is an accurate representation of the intended look. Unfortunately, Soderbergh carries the whole '70s aesthetic over to the sound design, meaning that despite the lossless TrueHD option, most of the audio plays like a mono soundtrack.
In addition to being a great director, Soderbergh is also one of the best commentary track recorders in the commentary track-recording business (that's a business, right?). Even when he had no involvement with the movie, his tracks are always literate and intelligent and engaging and funny (check out his tracks for Catch-22 or Point Blank for evidence). He's consistently honest about the process of making his movies (listen to him and Lem Dobbs fight on The Limey) and able to explain his choices with logic and clarity. Am I gushing? At any rate, his commentary on The Informant! -- one of only two extra features supplied by Warner Bros. -- is another home run. He sits with writer Scott Burns for a discussion of the production and the story behind the film, as well as the offbeat casting choices and Soderbergh's decision to guide the material more towards comedy than drama. Even if you don't love the movie (and there are lots of people who won't), you'll have to at least appreciate the depth to which the director explains his choices. It's a commentary track I could find myself repeating in the future, and with the over-proliferation of commentaries that's becoming a rare thing. The only other bonus feature included is a collection of four deleted scenes.
The Blu-ray disc also contains a standard def DVD of the film, as well as a digital copy for your computer or portable media device. You'll never be without The Informant! again.
With The Informant, Steven Soderbergh continues his long tradition of creating really good movies that no one sees (the Ocean's films notwithstanding). Audiences may have stayed away from theaters in favor of bigger spectacle, but now DVD and Blu-ray are an ideal format to take in the film, with its offbeat rhythms, smart, talky script and endlessly twisting plot. Do yourself a favor and check it out.
Review content copyright © 2010 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Digital Copy
* Official Site