The story of Mark Whitacre is almost too strange to believe. Why would a high ranking executive in the corn industry, suddenly approach the FBI with the intention of becoming an informant, when he had no solid evidence that he was implicated in the crimes he was gathering information on? I wasn't familiar with the Mark Whitacre's story and if you told me all the details, I'd likely think you were pulling my leg. The extreme absurdity of Whitacre's story, ultimately makes it a perfect choice for a straight-faced, darkly comic farce from Steven Soderbergh.
Soderbergh is well known for being a risk taker in Hollywood. While the mainstream viewer is likely to be familiar with his most commercially successful films such as the Ocean's Trilogy or the Oscar winning Erin Brockovich, Soderbergh cements his ultimate legacy with far more ambitious projects such as the remake of "Solaris" or the five hour epic biopic, "Che." "The Informant!" most definitely falls into that latter category, despite a marketing campaign overselling the film as a broad comedy and associating it with the Ocean's films. As a result, I distinctly recall many people actually falling asleep in the theater during the movie's theatrical run. They were likely not prepared for the end result.
As stated above, "The Informant!" uses ultimately dry comedy to tell Mark Whitacre's, very weird tale. Matt Damon delivers a career highlight performance as Whitacre, going to equally bizarre lengths to bring his portrayal to life. He gains extra weight and grows Whitacre's memorable mustache, for reasons I still can't comprehend. For a film that relies so much on the balance of seriousness consequence surrounded by absurd events, Damon hits a home run. He captures all the nervous ticks and nuances one would expect from someone like Whitacre, but also bring some very unexpected character traits to the table.
Narration or running monologue from a main character in a film can often make or break the entire picture, but here, Damon hits all the right notes. It's definitely not the expected narration though, it's almost entirely free of thoughts of self-doubt and nervousness about the situation. Instead it's almost entirely made up on straight-faced, head-scratching trains of thought and random non-sequiters. For instance, early on in the film, Soderbergh sets the scene with Whitacre striking the classical introspective pose, looking out at the property that borders his house. In your average biopic/true story, the monologue would reflect apprehension or introspection. The audience here is treated to a diatribe on outlet stores and the feasibility of using the land to build some. It's a moment that really sums up the overall tone of the movie.
As the story gets stranger, Whitacre remains just as odd, but is aided in keeping the comedy steady by another ambitious move on Soderbergh's part: the supporting cast. Practically the entire supporting cast is made up of comedians, but all in very serious, dramatic roles. Even the pair of FBI agents Whitacre answers to, has a reversal of acting roles, with Agent Shepherd, played by Scott Bakula, being the more comical character, while comedian Joel McHale, plays Agent Herndon with far more seriousness. It's an effect that really hammers home how absurd this whole story is. When Tom Smothers shows up and place things with deadly intensity, the audience will laugh while Matt Damon continues to share his inner thoughts, all while one of America's funniest men, plays his role without a hint of irony.
Having a chance to revisit "The Informant!" on DVD, made me appreciate the intelligence of the script even more than in theaters. On the first viewing, I was just as baffled as the next person, trying to figure out where things would go net, while still trying to catch all the subtle humor. Seeing the film for a second time, knowing the end result, I was astonished at how many subtle moments, or seemingly disposable one-liners were actually well thought out pieces of foreshadowing. When the credits rolled for a second time, I loved the movie even more and appreciated what Soderbergh, Damon, and a strong supporting cast managed to pull off.
"The Informant!" was, without a doubt one of 2009's best films of the year, and is the one film I deem robbed of Oscar nominations. It should have very easily been a contender for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Adapted Screenplay, and Music. The latter category is the most infuriating, as Marvin Hamlisch, a composer, who until now, I always associated with a Jon Stewart one-liner, has crafted a vibrant score that exudes class and harkens back to the scores of the 50s. It sets the tone of the scenes with ease and deserves more praise than it's getting.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer takes a little bit of time to show viewers that it's an accurate representation of the theatrical appearance. Many scenes take place indoors and these scenes are lit in a way that destroys the reality of all colors, at times, bathing them in a golden color, fitting, given the film's subject matter. There is a hint of minor compression artifacts, but other than that, no glaring technical hiccups arise. When the film does reach scenes filmed in more natural light, color levels are well translated and the image shows some more noticeable detail. Soderbergh likes to try new things with the look of his films and fortunately this time out, the gaudy look translates well on home video, unlike the mess that made up the transfer for "Ocean's Thirteen."
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio track is extremely solid for a dialogue driven picture. Hamlisch's wonderful score gives your full system the biggest workout, while most dialogue comes through the front channels, well mixed and crystal clear. During a handful of scenes though, the surrounds are used to good effect, capturing the placement of numerous individuals in a room, often behind our frame of reference. An English Dolby Surround track is available as well as Spanish and French 5.1 tracks. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included as well as French and Spanish subtitles.
A handful of deleted scenes comprises the DVD's only bonus features. They are all wise cuts from the final film, save for one that initially stuck me as adding to the story, however, it could have very well given away one of the film's twists. Warner continues to treat DVD owners like second-class citizens and fails to include Soderbergh's commentary, instead making it a Blu-Ray exclusive.
Like many of Soderbergh's more ambitious films, DVD is likely the medium where "The Informant!" will find its core audience. It's a nearly pitch perfect movie, that only falls victim to it's truthful absurdity with a frantic rush to the credits in it's final act. Had it had more time to breathe or been edited more tightly, it would be a flawless movie. I'm very disappointed in Warner shafting DVD customers again and leaving the commentary track for Blu-Ray consumers. Though, that aside, if you want a very different approach to comedy, check out "The Informant!" Come with an open mind and don't forget, it's all very real. Highly Recommended.