Guy a couple tables over from us at Barnes and Noble the other day didn’t know he was taking his life in his hands. He thought he was being helpful, probably, trying to save his friend the trouble of going to see The Informant! by telling him the whole movie, plot point by plot point, surprise twist by surprise twist, wrapping it up neatly by revealing the ending and adding his opinion that Matt Damon was wasted in the leading role.
If the blonde and I hadn’t just seen the movie the night before I might have gone over and dumped my coffee over his head.
But his verbal review convinced me of something I was already pretty sure about. There’s no way I’ve thought of yet to write a detailed review of The Informant! without giving away surprises and plot twists, and the surprises and plot twists are half the reason for going to see it.
I’m going to try, but maybe you shouldn’t read this in case I don’t pull it off.
I think I can say this much without giving anything crucial away. Director Steven Soderbergh’s stylistic jokes are hit or miss, and the ones that hit are smilers not knee-slappers and the ones that miss are more head-scratchers than groaners. The story takes place the 1990s but it looks like it’s taking place in 1965, and I’m not sure if that’s another one of the visual jokes or if it’s just Soderbergh and his designers being true to the time and place---that part of the Midwest has always been a generation behind the times in mores and manners and I would guess that the engineers, chemists, and accounting types who worked for Archer Daniels Midland were even more conservative in their lifestyles than their neighbors. At any rate, if you see her character as a pure product of the year she’d have been born, as if she’d taken in everything about how a woman, a wife, and a lady should be when she was a toddler and stuck to what she’d learned all her life, then Melanie Lynskey’s performance as Damon’s wife is very poignant. But if Ginger Whitacre’s meant to be representative of all the women of her circle, then her character is just bizarre and only fathomable as something of a nutcase. Since there are no other female characters who are part of her circle, there’s no way of telling for sure which Soderbergh intended, and that’s the case with much of what happens in the movie and with the movie---Soderbergh doesn’t give us any points of comparison to judge his characters or their situations against. There is no normal or “normal” in The Informant! Our idea of normal behavior don’t seem to apply but the characters’ ideas of what’s “normal” are left unexplained and unillustrated. This opens the possibility that everybody on screen isn’t normal, either by our or their own lights. This movie might be packed full of lunatics, mild eccentrics, or “normal” and basically sane people caught up in a crazy situation. Soderbergh keeps all three possibilities open.
I’ll give you a for instance. Scott Bukula’s hair. Bakula plays an apparently competent and decent-hearted FBI agent, a no-nonsense but not humorless or heartless law enforcement professional just doing his job as best he can. But what’s with the Vulcan haircut that makes him look like Mr Spock’s long lost brother, the Vulcan undertaker (when it’s not making him look like Herman Munster’s long lost brother, the undertaker)? Is it a mistake? He went to the barber one day and his regular guy was sick and this is what he came out of the shop with? Does he like it? Does he think it makes him look hip? Cool? Dashing? Does his wife like it? Do his colleagues laugh at him behind his back? Or do they admire his going against the grain? Every other male FBI agent we see has a conventionally short and conservative haircut. Is Bacula’s character a secret rebel? Or is he a secret fop who has no clue? Is the fact that he can look in the mirror without shock and dismay a sign of a lack of vanity or a sign of his not being able to see the reality of what’s in front of him, which would be a statement about the plot, or is it a sign that he’s divorced from reality?
We’re never given enough information to make even a guess.
This is not a bad thing. But your willingness to accept such dizzying inconclusiveness will determine whether or not you’ll enjoy the movie. I liked it, but I wasn’t quite satisfied, and left the movie theater feeling as though i was leaving a restaurant where I’d had a good meal but was half-wishing I’d ordered a different dessert.
I will say one more thing. That guy at Barnes and Noble was wrong about Matt Damon. The other half of the reason to see The Informant! is to be constantly surprised by the realization that you are watching Matt Damon in the leading role.
It’s not so much that he disappears into the character in the manner of Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep. It’s more that he doesn’t. He wears the part like a cheap disguise, a costume bought at the last minute from The Party Place, but as can happen with someone dressed up in a bunny suit, you lose track. The costume takes on a life of its own. This isn’t accidental either. But you need to see the movie to understand the point.
Or sit next to that guy at Barnes and Noble.
A lot of Damon’s disguising himself is accomplished with the way he sets his jaw throughout the movie. From what I’ve seen from the trailers, it looks as though Brad Pitt’s character in Inglorious Basterds is also a creation of the way the star re-sets his jaw. I wonder if Damon and Pitt have discussed lower mandiblar rearticulation as an acting technique. If I’d run into either one at the Clinton Global Initiative yesterday I’d have asked them about it. Didn’t see them though. Maybe they weren’t there. Damon was there on Tuesday, though. Here he is talking about Water.org’s commitment of $2 million dollars to bring safe drinking water to Haiti.