September in 2009 wasn’t a good month for the box office. Everything that opened seemed to either perform poorly or didn’t perform at all. Despite fairly positive reviews surrounding The Informant!, the film crept into theaters and made little, if any, noise. Still, the modest budget for the film ($22 million) didn’t go to waste as it eventually earned a worldwide return of $35 million ($33 of which came from domestic ticket sales). So those worrying that director Steven Soderbergh and star Matt Damon would vanish into nothingness due to this films relatively subdued box office performance need not worry. Not that anyone ever really was anyway.
Mark Whitacre is secretly rolling tape during a meeting of corporate honchos who are illegally fixing the price of food additives. Meeting after meeting, Mark rolls tape after tape. He’s sure the tapes will make him a U.S. hero. What went wrong? Director Steven Soderbergh reteams with one of his Ocean’s trilogy stars for a snappy skewering of big business based on the true story of the highest-ranking corporate whistleblower in U.S. history. Matt Damon portrays Whitacre, whip-smart and immensely likable even as his schemes become increasingly untethered. Pay attention to the fun and intrigue of The Informant! and be informed!
There are few things I truly detest in life. Well that’s not true; there’s probably a giant list of things I detest. But the main point I’m trying to make is that one of the more annoying things to me is when a film is marketed truly wrong. I mean I know that some films have to have a certain spin to them to be sold to a wider audience, but both of Warner’s big February 23rd releases, The Informant and The Box, were portrayed in ways that were really not reflective of what the films themselves were at all. The Box moreso, but I’ll save that lambasting for that review. The Informant was shown off as a snappy comedy with a quirky lead and the end result was something…not quite so snappy. Unlike The Box, however, I honestly have no idea how I would have done the marketing for this film differently. It’s a kind of wonder, being both a comedy and a drama at the same time…and also something that’s quite infuriating to behold at the same time.
See the film starts out as something else entirely. You know something’s off by the way Matt Damon’s character narrates the story in random bursts. The film also starts out by confusing the audience from the start, with Whitacre’s wife insisting he tell the FBI agents the truth from the beginning of their interviews. So when the film starts being incredibly vague about details and then unloading the answers onto you, you aren’t sure whether it’s just bad pacing/writing or if it’s a part of a more brilliant plan. By the end of the film you realize the real truth behind it all and from then on the film itself is just a lot more enjoyable. I really didn’t like the film at all in the beginning and felt duped that it wasn’t nearly as comedic as the trailers had made it out to be…but in the end I almost respected the film more for playing stupid the entire time and only letting us in on the big ploy at the end of the film.
And, of course, that was the way it happened in real life too. I’m sure there are a multitude of embellishments to be found in the film, but some of it’s just a little too crazy to make up. I love the quirky way it unfolds at the end too; Whitacre starts going off so wildly and spontaneously that you no longer think he’s just doing it all on purpose, which is a major twist in of itself. I’m mildly surprised I didn’t hear more about this at the time it was going on originally, but at the same time I’m glad I didn’t. As much as I was displeased with the first two acts of the film, the end result was all that much sweeter because of its deception.
The film wouldn’t be nearly as good as it ended up being without the actors involved, of course. Matt Damon was perfect in the role, as you never really suspected a thing about his character. You just genuinely believed he meant to do good at all times. Then there was the role of Scott Bakula and Joel McHale, two rather comedic people in very un-comedic roles. The same can be said for Tony Hale and Patton Oswalt—they’re all known as comedians, but they play straight-laced FBI agents or lawyers in the film. They have their moments of hilarity of course (particular Bakula and McHale in the Chinese restaurant with Damon), but it’s all a very subdued and underplayed movie. I have to also give credit to Soderbergh for that—I’ve only really seen his Oceans films and while the second one of those was quite a stinker, the other two were pure entertainment—he definitely went with a very deceptive little film, which mirrored the actual situation that Whitacre put so many through to a T.
Overall it takes at least two viewings to fully appreciate this film. The first time through you’ll just wonder what the hell is up with Damon’s characters narration that pops up at such awkward and incredibly random times throughout the film. I guess that should have tipped me off that something wasn’t right with the man from the start, but I’ve honestly had similarly random thoughts during conversations in which I should clearly be listening intently and instead my mind wanders to some completely far-off topic. So in that regard I could relate to him…at least in some of the instances, in others the tangents were so random I had no choice but to laugh at the absurdity of them.
I definitely Recommend this film, but just know going in that you’ll likely be very frustrated the first round through. The second round is much easier, especially since my second viewing was with Soderbergh on commentary.
Warner unleashes The Informant (and The Box) in their first ever non-children’s movie wave of Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combos. Thankfully they’ve just put the DVD and digital copy on the same disc so it’s just a standard two-disc Elite Blu-ray case housing the goodies inside. Also included is an insert including the digital copy redemption code as well as another denoting the importance of firmware upgrades to your player. There’s actually a menu this time around rather than an auto-playing film, although the menus so brief it makes one wonder why it auto-started like that. It also doesn’t have a single pop-up for the features menu either—it’s all done via a scrolling window ala most Fox releases.
Video arrives in a VC-1 encoded transfer and it looks pretty damn nice. The film takes place in the early 90s, so it’s still a fairly modern color palette, but at the same time the hairstyles and clothing are all nicely dated looking. The clarity of the picture is quite nice as well, with plenty of detail coming through in environmental elements as well as clothing and hair. It’s a very nice picture overall and considering it fills up your entire 16×9 TV with its 1.85:1 aspect ratio, there’s plenty of the picture to love.
The TrueHD 5.1 track isn’t too varied; it’s a dialogue driven film (very dialogue driven) and as such it doesn’t make too much of an effort to peep into the surrounds. There just aren’t any sequences to really push the boundaries of one’s surround sound setup, so if you have a decent speaker array going, you may be disappointed with the lack of depth that this track has. Although I do have to say that the films upbeat and highly entertaining soundtrack, provided by Marvin Hamlisch, was probably one of the films greatest traits and it comes through here flawlessly.
Extras are sadly limited…but at least we got a commentary track out of it. The Commentary by Director Steven Soderbergh and Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns is very, very informative and entertaining. It’s entertaining simply because Soderbergh posits the same questions we as the audience do, which allows Burns to act as his springboard for ideas and theories about Whitacre’s character and his true intentions during the half a decade this films main story spans. Add to the commentary a series of Additional Scenes (6:25, 1080p) and you have a disappointing but at least fairly entertaining set of extras. The deleted scenes are actually rather interesting, as they add a bit more “what the hell is up with him?” intrigue to Damon’s character. Had they been put back into the film, particularly that nighttime leaf blowing scene, the revelation at the end that something was wrong with his character would’ve dawned on the audience far too soon. Which would’ve been better for those frustrated with the film early on, but the pay off at the end is so good that it’s hard to really lament it too much.
Overall a Blu-ray that’s still Recommended. The more I think about the film the more I enjoyed it and while this Blu-ray is severely lacking in the extras department, the fact there was at least a commentary was really enough for me (especially considering a commentary spans the entire film, while a handful of behind the scenes featurettes would’ve totaled maybe twenty minutes…although I would’ve liked some actor input into the film as well. Oh well.).
The Informant! arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on February 23rd.