This American Life Episode Inspires Feature Film
Friday, September 18, 2009
Imagine if “The Insider” had been done as a comedy by the Coen Brothers and you’ll have an inkling of what “The Informant!” (opening September 18 throughout San Diego) tries to do.
The exclamation point at the end of the title for “The Informant!” says all you need to know about the film – it shouts out its intentions from the very beginning and never abandons it’s overstatement for something more subtle or meaningful. It’s central conceit is to have star Matt Damon play a nerdy whistle blower who doesn’t reveal all he knows right up front, and to play it all for laughs. One of the film’s taglines states: “Based on a tattle-tale.” An opening title card claims it’s based on a true story but with a few changes – “So there!” Yes I’m pretty sure there’s another exclamation point there as well because director Steven Soderbergh doesn’t want us to miss any of the gags.
According to the rebroadcast of “This American Life” entitled "The Fix is In,” Ira Glass states that a screenwriter heard the show back in 2000 and thought it would make a great screenplay. The show featured Kurt Eichenwald, whose book “The Informant” (no exclamation point in his title) chronicled the price fixing conspiracy at the food company Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), and the V.P. who cooperated with the FBI to record hundreds of hours of secret videos and audiotapes, catching the company in the midst of criminal behavior. But that was just the beginning of this tale.
Nine years after “The Fix is In” aired, Scott Z. Burns is seeing his script based on those events hit the big screen. The story focuses on Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a vice president who gets fed up with price fixing at the agri-business corporation where he works. He turns informant for the FBI and discovers that he enjoys the spy biz. He gets into wearing a wire and trying to find the best place for a camera or microphone. He even carefully leads people to say precisely what the FBI needs them to say. He’s a star witness, except for the fact that he fails to inform the FBI of his on illegal schemes.
“The Informant!” is fun but without an exclamation point. I enjoyed passing time with the film but can't get very excited about recommending it. I’d much rather see Soderbergh and Damon play around with this kind of silliness than to do another “Ocean’s” film. Yet both are capable of better. Sure it’s funny to see Damon look goofy with a big moustache and added pounds, and for Soderbergh to play this corporate tale as an absurd comedy but it’s all a joke to them. Damon never makes Whitacre anything more than a caricature, he’s playing the surface gag and nothing more. Same goes for Soderbergh. There’s something serious buried in all the absurdity of this case and Soderbergh could have made some commentary about the corporate climate that considers price fixing routine. This film coming at this point in the economic crisis could have offered some pointed or savage satire. But Soderbergh instead chooses to turn it into a breezy, stylized piece of fluff.
But it’s a highly produced piece of fluff. The production design captures the corporate environment of the 1990s effectively, the music adds zest, and the editing and photography are slickly executed. It looks good, it moves well, but it all feels hollow and even condescending. It’s condescending because you never feel that Soderbergh or Damon is actually interested in what’s going on beyond the outrageousness of Whitacre's behavior. They don’t really what to know what makes Whitacre tick, he’s just an object of ridicule – look at absurd he is, look how naïve he is, look at unbelievable his behavior is.
Soderbergh also packs the film with cameos -- or stunt casting depending on how you look at it -- with the likes of Patton Oswalt, Tom and Dick Smothers, Candy Clark, and others taking on small roles. Tom and Dick playing a corporate executive and a judge are probably the oddest and funniest casting choices.
The script by Burns could have been played for laughs or straight for some grim humor. There’s a continual voiceover narration provided by Whitacre that’s so off topic that it’s laughable. At first it seems goofy but later it starts to sound more like a psychological disorder. Based on listening to "This American Life," Burns' script appears to stick closely to the facts outlined in the show. But the film's shortcomings do not stem from Burns' script but rather from the approach Soderbergh and Damon take in bringing it to the screen. A similar problem occurred with the tone of "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" in which game show host Chuck Barris tries to convince us that he was working for the CIA.
“The Informant!” (rated R for language) is diverting and quickly forgettable. I suggest supplementing the film by listening to "This American Life." in which you can hear the real Mark Whitacre talk about his work with the FBI and even hear snippets of the audio he recorded. In some ways Damon seems to have captured Whitacre’s bizarre gung ho naiveté and all-American boy charm.
Companion viewing: “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “American Psycho,” "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"
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