RIORI Vol 3, Installment 91: Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!” (2009)



The Players…

Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey and a holy host of stand-up comics from the past 25 years.


The Story…

Ah, America’s Heartland. The Breadbasket, when most of the agriculture that sustains our fine nation is harvested for food, medicine and other vital consumer goods. And one of the most revered (and sometimes reviled) food production conglomerates Arthur Daniels Midland—ADM to you—is responsible from getting all that fresh corn to your tables. And cereal. And sodas. And Twinkies. And plastics. And so on.

But all is not well ADM. Vice President and corporate ladder climber Marc Whitacre smells a rat in his silo, and calls in the FBI to do their thing. Suddenly Marc is a whistleblower with dreams of rewards and promotions in protecting the interests of ADM.

Better wish him into the cornfield.


The Rant…

Out of general courtesy I’ll apologize for my long absence. I could tell you what I’ve been up to, but I know you don’t care. So let’s get to the matter at hand, shall we?

It’s funny. Steven Soderbergh evolved from art-house obscurity to award-wining director in only a few key strokes. Yeah, yeah. Lotsa directors get this left-handed complement. This guy named Spielberg jumps immediately to mind (though his oeuvre was never art-house; Night Gallery was as close as it got, but his ep starred Joan Crawford in her very twilight years. I guess that counts for something). This dude named Zemeckis went from slumming it with Used Cars to rocket to fame with the Back To The Future trilogy, not mention later on some commercial and critical goo-ga with a little film called Forrest Gump, Lieutenant Dan! Kurosawa wanted to be a painter; directing movies was a far flung second. Good thing he stunk at watercolors.

Considering the “meteoric” rise to fame and fortune of the esteemed above, most of their success laid in crafting films that both garner critical acknowledgment and a fun with a capital fun for audiences. Critical praise is easy to follow. The highbrow says what’s good and/or bad with a film and we grok them. What makes a person justify MoviePass’ existence is such a director getting the butts in the seats. Now, no one may argue that Saving Private Ryan is a critical delight, but it’s also a lot of fun. Harrowing fun, mind you, but entertainment is entertainment. And the box office results don’t lie. You did not need some PhD in film take their swipes. So there.

Soderbergh went from art-house whatever to major player in a few, mere steps. Out Of Sight and Traffic were terrific, bringing home the accolades and the profitable turnout. Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s Elevenfor good and for ill—made remakes a viable commodity in Tinsel Town. Hell, his remake spawned an entire franchise, and don’t let Sandra Bullock turn you off, wildcat. The ticket sales didn’t lie. Soderbergh may be onto something in making his movies get rave reviews and audiences wetting their diapers with aplomb. In simpler terms, he made a splash.

(Don’t groan. That is the best pun you’ve ever heard all hour.)

To wit, I breathe a sigh of frustration. A good director should rest on that: good at directing movies. Spin the tale. Let the actors roam. Get Junkie XL to cut the soundtrack. That sort of thing. Critical acclaim and audience satisfaction are not mutually exclusive. Wait, actually the audience matters most than any shiny shiny from the front row. I’m willing to betcha audience hoo-ha is more potent than critical blah. Remember, I’m no critic, just an observer. Movie critics make money. I sell blood to pay the rent. Kidding. It wasn’t my blood.

That being said (not the blood thing, not yet), I feel that the rabble may influence the highbrows more than they’d like to admit. What do these dopes with their Big Gulps and Trump bumper stickers know about cinema? Precious little, and that’s okay. Soderbergh’s CV, to them, came fully formed like Zeus hatched from Cronos’ skull. Tight drama, tight action. It works for me, too. Good movies are good movies, no matter how wobbly the director finds themselves on the front row at a Stones’ concert. Shouting out requests. And being heard. The snots with their columns may often bow down not to the doyens of cinematic f*ckery: the fickle, salt-of-the-earth, flavor-in-Columbus crowd. Them’s with their faith in MoviePass, y’all. Butts squarely in the seats.

What I am ultimately driving at is that cagey directors like Soderbergh made his name by not giving a sh*t about critical praise. They want to serve their muse and get others to go on the trip (not necessarily in that order). If he got some, hooray. I don’t give a sh*t if he was the first director to shoot a film on Mars with the remaining Monty Python troupe members recreating a live-action musical version of Akira. It would be entertaining, even without heavy drugs. And why do I claim this silliness? Because Soderbergh knows how to create films that are both solidly entertaining and innovative. And please the popcorn munchers and the highbrows in equal measure. Only Spielberg has straddled that line so well, but it took him a bit longer. I mean it took 11 years of films for Soderbergh to win his Best Director Oscar. It took Spielberg 25 years. That says something about canny filmmaking like Soderbergh: critical and commercial delights. Not an easy task to accomplish ever in Hollyweird when the bottom line is the bottom line.

This isn’t fandom gushing here. It’s respect, a hard won commodity in the realm of movie making. Which is oddly almost a thankless job in Hollywood. Can we say “creative differences” anyone? Ask Richard Donner about his truncated work on the blockbuster Superman II. Considering Soderbergh’s canon is full of quirky and edgy undertones his films deliver. The money. Hollywood might say thank you and not call on Richard Lester for Ocean’s XVIII.

It’s not like Soderberg is one of those crazy taskmasters like Hitchcock, Kubrick and Ford were, nor is he one of those odious filmmakers that subscribe to auteur theory. He just wants to makes films that serve his muse (and often id) and hopes the audience takes his hand holding the clapperboard. This apparent, amiable not giving a sh*t execution of his movies can make Soderbergh seem like some roguish dooshnozzle to the cinematic elite. Praise is given, sometimes reluctantly, and just like with all our successful heroes we can wait for the opportunity to take them down a peg or two.

Which is why when a popular, respected director with all but praise to their profession drops a turd in the punchbowl, Variety is all over it like Oprah on a powdered doughnut. Not every director has a sterling record. For every Raging Bull a New York, New York creeps behind. Scorsese had string of winners before the stinkers, and when the hose came out the furor of the guy “losing his touch” eclipsed the relatively recent, “no duh” praise to Taxi Driver, Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. The snobs accused and blamed Scorsese for calling it in, or worse. And boy did they sh*t the bed for it. Especially after Raging Bull was released.

I do have a point coming. Relax. Lemme take a bathroom break first…

*zip*

That’s better. Better to pissed off than pissed on I say. What, heard that one before?

Sometimes an esteemed director “takes a risk.” Deviating from their usual bread and butter. Kinda like when horror porn enfant terrible Eli Roth to a break from stuff that bleeds all over stuff that bleeds and chose to be Halloween prankster and gave us the big adapt of The House With A Clock In Its Walls (starring Jack Black, no less). Eyebrows were raised. Was this some sort of joke? Yes, it was and I, for one, went along with it. Good movie. Lotsa creepy crawlies and frights and Black as the bumbling, chubby warlock. My kid thought it was too scary, and informed her of what kind of movies the director usually made. She said no thanks.

And no thanks to me either. I’ve seen a few of Roth’s output. I like scary, not vomit inducing. But him “taking a risk” directing a PG Halloween movie with magic and mayhem (“playing against part” if you will) well outside his comfort zone certainly got folks to take notice, of only for the wrong reason: how could Mr Hostel become Willy Wonka?

Granted, Roth isn’t really an esteemed director. Infamous and a grade A schlockmeister to be sure, but still the guy has a rep, a cachet. I think my above example rings true for those filmmakers are godheads to film geeks like you, me and them. Take Spielberg. For the first 15 years of his profession as director his stock in trade was in sci-fi and action/adventure flicks. When he strayed into the field of drama, people (and critics) went bugf*ck, to put it mildly. And based on a book! Written from the POV of a black woman! Quincy Jones did the soundtrack while John Williams cried in his beer! And introduced to the world to an edgy comic as a victim of domestic abuse!

World, meet Whoopi. Whoopi, meet the world and don’t let Oprah run you down.

Talking about taking a risk. The Color Purple must’ve invited more scrutiny about it was made (and by who) than the merits of the movie proper. What right does this 30-something, Jewish white boy have documenting the black experience? According to my fact checking department (of which I have none) the black community did scratch their heads as a collective whole as to what to make of this guy Spielberg taking such a “risk?” Well, even though I don’t give much credence to the AMPAS and its doctrine, Purple was nominated for 11 Oscars as well as cleaning up at the box office. Who wants some Selsun Blue?

Soderbergh is also know for being “risky” when helming a film. I’m not talking outright subject matter (although it’s well-understood his muse straddles a line between intimacy and sexuality), or even the story. He’s just so very staunch in his belief of let the creator create, regardless of their endeavors. It’s called integrity, my fellow popcorn munchers and to be a successful filmmaker in an industry that is always in a hot hurry to sell the newest “it” requires two things: a vision and a maverick conduct. Whenever Soderbergh takes his risks, it often comes up in the dailies he challenged himself a tossed off feel. Soderbergh’s manna has always been intrigue and tenuous relationships in his work. Makes no diff if it’s with Ocean’s (insert number here), Oscar winner Traffic or his take on Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic, existential sci-fi Solaris. Whatever it takes and go with the flow or blow.

That being said, comedy? Um, terra incognita. Sure, the Ocean’s movies had some funny stuff, but it was a crime caper first and foremost. Already established by 2009 as a director of merit, whose films are dense, terse character studies (even his Solaris, quit groaning) to tackle a comedic story based on real events inspired by It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad WorldWell, really?

Talk about “taking a risk” even though bowing down to a comedy is rarely regarded by the bent-nosed critics as such. For ardent fans of a director with a signature style it mostly requires extra Selsun Blue. For a director like Soderbergh who likes to challenge himself as his audience, going screwball might smell like career suicide. Especially casting a former captain of the proto Enterprise as a G-Man sans the holo avatar. But here we go.

Try not to notice Damon’s coif…


Mark Whitacre (Damon) is a rising star at ADM. He’s affable, knowledgeable and driven. He has his eyes on the stars, and maybe his head in the clouds.

Mark’s a rising star ADM. Good rep, astute, bright future awaits.  His boy scout mentlality and respect for his benefactors suddenly turns him into whistleblower when a rumor of ADM’s primary crop—read: corn—is being tampered with (maybe by Monsanto’s industrial operatives).

In hopes of gaining a lucrative promotion and becoming a hero of the common people, Mark inadvertently reveals his penchant for helping himself to the corporate coffers and threatens to derail the very investigation he helped to launch.

Well, what investigation? The FBI’s, of course. Special Agent Brian Shepard (Bakula) suspects that ADM is doing some price fixing, and because of Mark’s sterling record he might be the ideal—

Oh, you get it…


Hmm.

Soderbergh may make good, terse dramas and bouncy actioners. Comedy? Well, let’s just say the apple rolls away from the tree. And rolls.

Getting to the point Informant is screwy yet stiff. That odd combo seems to work here, but only to a degree. It feels kinda like an ep of “The Kids In The Hall.” Subtley surreal but not as overt. What am I watching? A comedy or sorts. It’s dry, mostly. I like dry humor. My humor is dry. The Informant is so dry it chafes. It gets a bit off-putting after a while.

I lay blame at the script. The story can’t make up its mind if the Informant! is a scrweball comedy, a manic caper when All The Presidents’ Men meets the Coen Bros circa The Big Lebowski (what else?), or a character study of a nice guy who wants to seen as nice and agrees to everything except using the common sense God gave Sylvester the cat. In short, the focus of the movie bounces back to the “A” plot, which is pretty straightforward after careening around in the B-plot, Mark’s fevered delusions of success. Informant! gets all scrambled, yet that may be the point. We’re looking at a man who is failing upwards but has convinced himself what he is doing working for the FBI (eg: climbing the corporate ladder, being an advocate on behalf of ADM, being a doting family man, etc) is the “right” thing, despite losing himself in his delusion.

Let’s cut to the chase: this is a decidely odd movie. Silly, really. It’s tough to follow the straight line towards what Soderbergh (tried) to get across here. Chuckles, sure. Maybe social commentary. Perhaps just an outlet for Damon to cut loose. Aye, that may be the rub.

Let’s talk about Damon for a moment. He’s the pinion upon which the whole wad spins, right? His Mark is an amalgam of Mr Slate from The Flintstones and Bud Abbott; superiority and insecurity’s hold on it personified. And what’s the most interesting— if not the most amusing—aspect of Informant! is the relation between how Mark’s grasp on the reality of his (self-inflicted) surroundings makes his “waking” life all the more surreal, which he does not acknowledge. With much force. His voice-overs are less random synapses of rationalization but rather a steam vent opening. Mark’s monologes are nothing but rationalizing, convincing himself if the right guy for the job. The “nice” guy.

That whole bit wasn’t conceived to be negative. After coming so far with RIORI I’ve learned how to write as a doosh without being a doosh. Well, still learning I guess. I’m not the biggest Damon fan. Sure, he’s a solid actor, reliable. And very predictble. Damon’s performance is so un-Damon it makes solid Damon almost unrecognizable. It’s a good thing. It allows young Jack Ryan (or even younger Illario) to go again his grain. Mark is the funniest thing about Informant! and he makes this flick ne big facepalm. Mark is insecurity incarnate, and also pulls of nerdy very well. Damon’s the only animated person here. Everyone else—including the much more earthy Bakula, who looks like he his head far from the clouds—are just dolts. Wallpaper. Makes Damon’s Mark all the more, well, marked. Is it a coincidence that stand-up comics comprise the supporting cast? They’re all laughing at him. I was. That was about it.

Again it was kinda tricky to follow where Soderbergh was going here. Right, comedy. But what kind? Was this some kind of corporate Three Stooges bit? Was it all about a fish out of the wrong water? A middle finger to the ardent Soderbergh audience? You can almost hear the dominos tumbling down. What adds to any comic unease is the incessant babble of Marc’s voiceovers, almost pleading for both sympathy for his plight as well as making a case for his criminal acts. Laughs in finger-pointing or you don’t know what else to do? Me? I caught the gig, but missed the show. A tight director like Soderbergh needs to be looser to pull of a giggle fest. Or a facepalm.

This movie is silly, and it’s hard to tell if that was on purpose. Knowing it was based on real events, were the real Mark’s escapades that hair-brained or was some sweetening spread across the script? Granted a lot of scenarists take liberty with the source material (eg: that pen trading thing in A Beautful Mind? Never happened, nor the ceremony ever existed. Sorry, Montblanc). I figured the writers of Informant!  did their darndest to make the film laughable. Under comedy-rube Soderbergh Informant! played out as laughble.

Like Bakula’s ‘do.

“Al? You there?”


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. This is a first. The Informant! (despite my grumpier, assured yammerings over lesser movies) is the first flick here that was just not my thing. It was a solid film, well cut, but had a hard time holding my attention or churning up laughter. Despite my steaming, I can still recognize what I recognize.


Stray Observations…

  • “What else is there?”
  • Corky?
  • Bakula sports an amazing hairstyle, akin to pro football coach crica 1976. Must’ve leapt there for ideas.
  • “This involves price fixing in the lycene business.” Hide the children.
  • “You let me know about it, and I’ll tell my Dad.”
  • Pay phones. Stupid things.
  • The way Mark’s brain is wired you can almost hear the fuses blowing.
  • Never trust a guy who says, “Trust me” holding a large glass of whisky.
  • Remember Woody Allen’s Sleeper? Yep.
  • “Well, I think maybe I should go back to the hospital.”

Next Installment…

Matt Damon (and Emily Blunt) is on the run from The Adjustment Bureau. Wow! So?!?


 

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