September 19, 2009

The Informant! (09/19/09)

Lettergrade: F

You know, "hate" is an awfully strong word, but it's the only one that really comes to mind when thinking about Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!. Oh, it's started off well enough: The cast, which includes Matt Damon and Scott Bakula, is fantastic, and the true story of a delusional, dimwitted guy who sold out his agro product company, Archer Daniels Midland, to the FBI for price fixing not realizing that he himself would very likely be implicated in multiple corporate crime and embezzlement charges, sounded like fertile ground for at least a passably entertaining evening at the cinema. Perhaps it would sort of be like a comedic variant on Michael Mann's The Insider?

Ultimately, though, I really feel this movie, while amusing for short bursts, doesn't connect... somewhat because of the writing, but largely due to the way in which it is told. Structure first: The movie has a highly irritating way of keeping the audience on the outside of some key plot points for several scenes before letting you know what, exactly, is happening. I want to make the distinction that this can often be used for good dramatic effect, but that's not what this picture does. The difference is that a movie needs to be somewhat deliberate about what it is being unclear about it. Too often during this one I felt like I had simply missed some critical information, which is when "suspense" turns to "frustration" and then ultimately "apathy."

Building on that escalating sense of apathy was the picture's wafter-thin character material. I found Damon's character neither interesting nor sympathetic nor in any way relatable. Giving him funny hair, a fake nose, and a little extra weight seems to kind of hardwire his screen-time for comedy and comedy alone. A problem with that approach, however, is that it's almost like you're watching a stage clown or a Saturday Night Live character instead of a serious actor giving a dedicated performance. Again, I don't necessarily believe that every movie has to have a character that you like or want to root for, but at least we need to care about what happens to the people we're spending two hours with.

I thought that Damon's crazy internal monologues were really entertaining, and being a long time film-score nerd, I found it interesting that Soderbergh picked music legend Marvin Hamlisch out of retirement to write the jazzy, kitschy score. As the movie ground on, however, both really wore out their welcome fast and only further underlined that this is a project Soderbergh somewhat mishandled.

Other technical gripes are that the picture was largely shot on Red Camcorders instead of film, meaning that the picture, when projected on a large theater screen, was quite fuzzy and soft... almost appearing to be out of focus for large segments. Another byproduct of this format is that bright light sources appeared highly misty, particularly during daylight scenes. During segments of the movie, I found myself wondering if my allergies had returned and were affecting my vision, but when I looked around the theater I realized that everything else was perfectly clear: It was only the movie that was not. Soderbergh has shot most of his own movies since 2000 (under the name Peter Andrews), and it's something he really needs to get away from. Part of the idea behind not having everything be a one-man show is that someone can be there to tap the director on the shoulder every now and again and say, "you know, choosing that lens filter for the camera might not be the best idea." Many other scenes are dark and muddy, and in others still it feels like no one even bothered to point some lights at the actors.

Once upon a time, at least, Soderbergh made pictures that I really liked, but I believe the last time I could say that was in 2000 or so when he was nominated for dual Best Director Oscars for his work on Erin Brockovich and Traffic (the latter for which he won). His first post-Oscar picture was the artistically bankrupt Ocean's 11, which was intended as a fun bank-heist picture, but contained neither fun nor tension. He had two more attempts at making an Ocean's picture that works, and came up with similar results each time. The interstitial pictures have either been bloated and dull (Solaris) or have emphasized style over substance in a way that's awkward and ineffectual (The Good German).

I think he's officially blown his credit line with me, and I'll have to start automatically skipping his movies in the future. I had high hopes for The Informant! as a film that might have been similar to Brockovich in that it would tell an entertaining-yet-true story about corporate crime and some of the interesting people involved with it. The thing is, this movie is a lot funnier if you already know the details of what Mark Whitacre did and where his story is going. In fact, the picture seems to depend on some of that knowledge in order to make any sense at all. If you know those things, however, you might come to the wise conclusion that you should probably just stay home and watch something else.

My review of Ocean's 13

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