Friday, September 25, 2009

"The Informant!" Review

In preparation for seeing "The Informant!" I came to the realization that despite having a longstanding awareness of Steven Soderbergh and his ever-expanding body of work, I had, remarkably, not seen any of his films. Even his remake of "Ocean's Eleven" has somehow eluded me, which I hear is just great. So to start, my perception of the man may be a little skewed. I know he bounces between mainstream studio films and indie passion projects, which I respect, but in contextualizing his latest, which stars Matt Damon, is playing in corporate cineplexes, and follows "The Girlfriend Experience," which I understand was an incontrovertibly artsy entry in Soderbergh's filmography, I was unprepared for how independent "The Informant!" felt.

If the promotional poster, a not-so-subtle nod to Judd Apatow's "40-Year-Old Virgin" one-sheet, communicates any aspect of "The Informant!" accurately, it could only be the sparse, orange lighting that permeates the majority of its scenes. Damon beams with the same ineffable ebullience as Steve Carell, eyes focused off-frame with 'unbelievable' superimposed above his forehead, but this image and that word provoke a very different set of feelings than those of the film itself.

The correlation to "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" is an interesting one, as Soderbergh seems to imagine this film a comedy. Rollicking Woody Allen-esque jazz numbers and campy sixties spy pieces comprise the score by Marvin Hamlisch ("The Sting," "The Spy Who Loved Me"). Next is the curious casting of well-known TV comedians in virtually every role. Patton Oswalt makes an appearance, as does Scott Adsit ("30 Rock"), Tony Hale ("Arrested Development"), Clancy Brown ("Spongebob Squarepants"), Paul F. Tomkins ("Mr. Show"), Andrew Daly ("Eastbound & Down"), and the list goes on from there. But despite seemingly every intention of the director to steer his film firmly to comedy's shores, the result is decidedly unfunny.

Not unfunny in the way "The Hangover" is unfunny, mind you, but rather in the way a movie like "Jackie Brown" is unfunny; it feels as though it isn't even supposed to be. The goal, I think, was the Coen's "Fargo," a deft blend of humor and thrills, but "The Informant!" merely amuses and rarely excites. Soderbergh's direction is generally a moot point however, as what makes movies like "Fargo" work are scripts with clockwork precision, which he never had to begin with.

Sure, it's based on book based on a true story, but the medium of film has a way of turning the most incredible truth into the most banal fiction, and "The Informant!" gets bogged down in the details. Years swing by between scenes and the third act becomes a revolving door of lawyers and roundtable meetings that rob the climactic twist of its visceral impact (if you aren't familiar with the story to begin with).

Having seen "The Informant!" as my first Steven Soderbergh film, my opinion of the director has, ironically, not been colored one way or the other. He makes some (optimistically) unique directorial choices, but struggles to reconcile the novel and the screenplay or the drama and the comedy as a compelling feature film. Ultimately, the Apatow knockoff poster he commissioned is more spunky and successful than the film itself. "The Informant!" is masquerading as an offbeat comedy drenched in orange phosphorescence, but the spy flick's secret identity is just another forgettable corporate caper.


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