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Ten Word or Less Review: Sneaky movie that seems benign, but isn’t.

“The Informant” is a funny movie you’ll never laugh at.  When it’s over you’ll find yourself highly amused at much of what’s transpired, but you may not recall audibly chuckling at any of it.  It’s a film that quietly walks a tight rope between realism and absurdity like few others.  On some level it feels like a Coen Brothers movie, but minus that strong desire to reach in and strangle all the characters that’s come to plague their recent output.

This is another idiosyncratic achievement from director Stephen Soderbergh.  His third film in a year’s time, “The Informant” may be his best since his career renaissance of the late 90’s and early 2000’s.  Part “American Psycho”, part “The Insider”, it tells the true story of corporate whistle blower Mark Whitaker, a biochemist and VP who spent 3 years working with the FBI to expose price fixing in the billion dollar industry of lysine production, lysine being a cornerstone ingredient in almost every manufactured good people eat.  But as he was working as a whistle blower for the FBI, Whitaker was embezzling millions of dollars for himself.  “The Informant” doesn’t eschew straight ahead representation of the facts in this case, but instead presents them in a bent light.  With his golden hued, “Oceans 11” influenced cinematography; Soderbergh gives us the compelling story of a man who can’t be classified like most.  Good or bad are irrelevant details here because the subject himself, despite being something of a genius, doesn’t grasp their meaning beyond a rudimentary nature.

Matt Damon’s Whitaker is portrayed as a kind of pathological liar obsessed with proper portrayals of good and bad.  He sees himself as a hero who should be congratulated for his brave efforts to right the crooked ship that is his company, the fact that he’s a rampant thief and deceiver himself seems out of his field of view and ultimately irrelevant in his own mind.  It’s a performance that could have easily tipped into flashy, cartoon antics, but Damon never pushes it too far into absurdity.  His surreal bits of narration are the strongest indicators that the film wants to show Whitaker as a man off by numerous degrees.  But though these observations are odd, they’re truthful and never wrong.  It’s the kind of skilled, pointed, low key work that gets oft overlooked by critics and audiences for its peculiar exactitude.  It’s not showy, bombastic or pointed with moments of high drama.  It’s a performance rooted in the cards being held close to the chest that could be seen as brilliant, if it didn’t shoot right over everyone’s head.  There’s a large and capable supporting cast but this is Damon’s show and his alone.  His Oscar nomination for his one dimensional sports movie role in “Invictus” is even more baffling after watching this.

If one thing may push viewers into a corner it’s that the movie never gives us a definitive view of what exactly is wrong with Whitaker.  There’s no doctor monologue or therapist speech to clear the air.   The truth being an ultimately unknowable thing appeals to Soderbergh so he leaves Whitaker in audience hands to decide for themselves who this man is and what his issues were.  Viewers are left with implications that Whitaker could be anything from nothing more than a caught conman to a delusion head case with deeply rooted mental issues.  The film points more towards the later but doesn’t rule out the former.  This aspect of ambiguity may drive some nuts.  But it’s the fact that the movie leaves you in this uncommon place that makes it so much more fun.

Though it failed to make much impression critically or financially, something quietly tells me that “The Informant” could find a devoted fan base with time.  Damon’s Whitaker isn’t at the status of clearly lovable of anti-hero that Jeff Lebowski achieved, but Damon gives him something so hard to peg or ignore that time could greatly appreciate the value of his work here and the film overall.  If you decide to see it, don’t worry that you’re not laughing.  Nothing’s wrong.  You’re merely enjoying yourself on the inside.

Related to: The Insider, American Psycho, The Big Lebowski,

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