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The Informant
Matt Damon goes from action to comedy.
The Informant
Matt Damon Stars in "The Informant."
OPENING WEEKEND: $13,000,000
DOMESTIC TOTAL: $40,000,000
OTHER PREVIEWS: Alatriste (7/10)
  This Film is NOT a Future Release.
  The Following Preview has been Archived.

August 17th, 2009: The U.S. government decides to go after an agri-business giant with a price-fixing accusation, based on the evidence submitted by their star witness, vice president turned informant Mark Whitacre.

What to Expect: Steven Soderbergh is a director I've never been able to get a good handle on. His career has existed in fits and starts, and his choice of films is so widely varied that it's damn near impossible to pin him down to a signature genre or tone. His first big splash was "Sex, Lies and Videotape" in 1989, which was followed by nearly a decade in which he made very little of note before bursting back onto the A-list with a three-year streak of awesomeness during which he made "Out of Sight," "The Limey," "Erin Brockovich," "Traffic" and "Ocean's Eleven." Then...sputter and fade. "Solaris" and "Full Frontal" fell totally flat. "The Good German" didn't do much. With the exception of the two sequels to "Ocean's Eleven," the first of which was near-universally hated, nothing much happened for Soderbergh. He's been doing what can only be called some experimental filmmaking, including releasing a so-called "day and date" film (a film that's released near-simultaneously in theaters and on DVD) starring nonprofessional actors. His four-hour, two-part biopic of Che Guevara starring Benicio del Toro generated no buzz whatsoever but ate up what seemed like years of his life.

Article continues below

And things are looking a little strange in the future, too. Soderbergh was set to film "Moneyball" with his frequent collaborator Brad Pitt, the story of the Oakland A's and how their manager used statistics to overcome shortcomings in the budget for talent...but Sony's Amy Pascal pulled the plug on the project only five days before shooting was to start. Reports indicate that the split was due to Soderbergh's reworking of Stephen Zaillian's script, and that the studio didn't like Soderbergh's vision for the film. This extremely late cancellation of the project cost Sony 10 million, and sent shockwaves through Hollywood. It's unprecedented for the studio to cancel a high-profile project so close to filming without taking steps to ensure the project's continuation. In fact, the project was then shopped around to other studios, none of whom bit, so Sony's stuck with it.

Soderbergh's next project , then, will be...wait for it...a rock musical about the life of Cleopatra re-set in the 1920s. Okaaaay. I thought it was against the rules to make a musical these days without involving Rob Marshall, Adam Shankman or Baz Lurhman but what do I know. Catherine Zeta-Jones is set to star as Cleopatra. Hugh Jackman was going to play Marc Antony but withdrew; no word on a replacement yet, and I'm hearing that Ray Winstone will play Julius Caesar.

But let's talk about this movie. The production had been in the pop culture news for awhile, mostly because of all the paparrazzi photos of Matt Damon looking decidedly doughy, a sharp contrast from his three-percent-body-fat Jason Bourne look. These photos were always accompanied by a caption indicating that Damon had put on about thirty pounds for his role in Soderbegh's film "The Informant" about corporate whistleblower Mark Whitacre.

Okay. So Soderbergh's making another film about corporate evildoing. It'll be one of those good-for-you, serious-drama Oscar-bait films with the earnest performances and the courtroom scenes, and I know we were all thinking about "The Insider," in which Russell Crowe also gained weight to play a corporate whistleblower, and oh by the way got an Oscar nomination for his trouble. So we were all ready for second verse, same as the first. Soderbergh trying to get back into the Serious Bizness mode, make a politically relevant and thoughtful film, and nab himself another Best Director Oscar in the process. Right?


"The Informant" is actually titled "The Informant!" With the exclamation point, like in "Airplane!" And it's not a serious drama. It's a comedy. In fact, if you'd shown any movie fan the trailer and asked them to identify the filmmaker, nine out of ten would say "Coen Brothers." Because that's what it looks like. A Coen Brothers movie.

The film is based on the book of the same name (sans exclamation point) by journalist Kurt Eichenwald. Mark Whitacre was an executive for corn conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland, who in the mid-90s contacted the FBI wanting to share information he had about ADM's executives, including himself, engaged in a conspiracy with various other companies to manipulate the market for the food additive lysine. This was one of the largest price-fixing scandals in history, and the FBI needed more information. They recruited Whitacre to wear a wire and tape conversations, meetings and corporate secrets. For several years he worked with the FBI to prosecute many executives.

Here's where it gets weird. Whitacre is evidently what one would call "a character." He envisioned himself as some kind of secret agent, and had convinced himself that by blowing the whistle on his colleagues he would become a hero to other workers and would end up running the company himself. His behavior grew more and more erratic as the investigation proceeded. Little did the FBI know that Whitacre suffered from bipolar disorder...nor did they know that he was busily committing fraud, to the tune of 9 million dollars, which would eventually get him more jail time than the ADM executives he was helping to catch.

Knowing that, writing this film as an offbeat comedy seems like the perfect match. The entire situation is just too ridiculous for words, and portraying Whitacre's character as some earnest self-sacrificing hero would require some serious rejiggering of the facts, not to mention that this is just way more fun.

There's been some surprise on the Intarwebz that Soderbergh would choose Damon for a comedic role. Soderbergh is known for inspiring loyalty in his actors, which a quick glance at his resume reveals. The same actors work with him over and over again. George Clooney worked with him in one of his first major roles, in "Out of Sight," and of course went on to star in the Ocean's films, as did Damon. I don't know why anyone would doubt Damon's ability to carry off comedy. Am I the only one who remembers "Good Will Hunting" and "Dogma?" And the aforementioned Ocean's films? Matt Damon is one of the most versatile actors working today. He's proven that he can handle action; the Bourne films have practically redefined actions films in the new millennium. He's done drama everywhere, most notably his underrated performance in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (one of my favorite movies, incidentally). I think he's a perfectly natural choice for the role.

As for the other cast members, it's a bit of a motley crew, but an interesting one. Scott Bakula will be making a welcome return to the big screen as the lead FBI agent on the case. "Arrested Development" alum Tony Hale and "The Soup" host Joel McHale also star, and the always-awesome Clancy Brown makes an appearance. The screenplay is by "Bourne Ultimatum" screenwriter Scott Z. Burns. That film had one of the tightest, most efficient screenplays in recent memory but this is an entirely different animal. A movie like this will live and die by its dialogue; the same cannot be said for any of the Bourne films.

The problem with this film will be marketing and placement. They're on the right track with the trailer that's already been released, which sets a tongue-in-cheek tone and is clear about the film's comedic elements. Damon could be a significant draw, although his matinee-idol appeal is a bit dimmed by extra poundage and the unfortunate Ted Koppel helmet-hair he's sporting. The September dumping-ground isn't very fertile moviegoing territory but films like this one, quirky and hopefully with good word-of-mouth, can succeed there away from the summer blockbusters.

In Conclusion: A surprising entry in a long line of surprising entry from director Steven Soderbergh, channeling the Coen brothers, so it seems. Finding an audience could be difficult for this film, but the over-35 cinemaphile crowd will probably appreciate it.

Similar Titles: Out of Sight, Ocean's Eleven, The Italian Job
September 18th, 2009 (wide)
February 23rd, 2010 (DVD)

Warner Bros. Pictures

Steven Soderbergh

Matt Damon, Joel McHale, Scott Bakula, Mike OMalley, Andrew Daly, Adam Paul, Melanie Lynskey, Tom Wilson, Rick Overton, Tom Papa, Candy Clark

Total: 16 vote(s).

Comedy, Suspense

Click here to view site

Rated R for language.

108 min





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