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'The Informant!' is uneven, but Matt Damon makes it work

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Posted: Thursday, September 24, 2009 10:00 pm

Still waiting for things to pick up on the movie front.

Doesn't look like we've got much to look forward to until Oct. 2 brings Michael Moore's new documentary "Capitalism: A Love Story" (although it must be said, a new Moore film is always a risky prospect), the horror comedy "Zombieland," Ricky Gervais' "The Invention of Lying" and a 3-D revival of the "Toy Story" films.

All promising titles - why couldn't they have rolled one out this weekend instead, so I don't have to watch a remake of "Fame"?

"The Informant!" isn't always an entertaining film, but at least it's consistently interesting and unpredictable, so long as you're not familiar with the real-life events that inspired it.

Viewers seeking instant gratification should look elsewhere, as this is one of those films where, even if you end up enjoying it, you probably won't have the slightest inkling as to how you feel about it until well into the final act.

I'm not sure if the film's repetitive, almost disorienting nature is a bold attempt to get the viewer into the psychological mind frame of its central character or if it's merely an instance of sloppy filmmaking, but the traditionally reliable Steven Soderbergh ("Out of Sight," "Traffic," the "Ocean's Eleven" series) ends up tying things together so well that I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

As "The Informant!" opens, it's the early 1990s and Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon, complete with goofy mustache and questionable hair) is working as a top biochemist for corporate power player ADM.

Backed into a corner over a failed project and fearing he'll be fired, he deflects criticism away from himself and invents a global corporate espionage conspiracy to explain the project's failings.

Things get out of hand as the FBI becomes involved, and Whitacre takes the opportunity to expose a massive price-fixing scheme involving his bosses at ADM. With no apparent concern as to what it could eventually mean for his job, Whitacre throws himself into the investigation with reckless abandon and, over the course of several years, provides the FBI with more than 200 video and audio tapes giving them the evidence they'll need to convict.

I decided I was annoyed with the film at about the half-way point, but I'm glad I stuck it through until the end, because "The Informant!" is a film that builds momentum and becomes a whole lot more interesting as it goes along.

By the end, you realize that the movie works best not as a wacky corporate farce (although it sometimes works as that as well, thanks in large part to the understated comedy of Scott Bakula and Joel McHale as Whitacre's FBI contacts), but as a character study of a troubled man whose motivations and personal quirks can never hope to be understood - not by his family, his friends or his co-workers, and least of all by himself.

Third-act revelations put a different, interesting spin on the story, and enrich all that came before. It's not enough to turn "The Informant!" into a great film, as many are claiming, but it's enough to thoroughly save a movie that, for the first hour or so, fails to impress.

"The Informant!"

*** (out of four)
2009, Steven Soderbergh, U.S., R

Yet even if the screenplay is dicey early on, Damon is always fascinating to watch. At first glance this may seem like a gimmick performance ("Ahaha, it's Matt Damon looking all goofy!

It's funny because he's actually attractive!"), but the actor's commitment to the material - however silly - and some creative voice-over narration do a lot to endear him to the viewer. Whitacre is certainly troubled, and he may even be a sociopath - but by the end, he's our sociopath.

New on DVD

The DVD format was popularized about 12 years ago, but even as we're gearing up to make another switch to Blu-ray, there are still a number of important titles that remain available only on VHS.

"Homicide"

****
1991, David Mamet, U.S., R

Until recently, David Mamet's "Homicide" was at the top of that list. Thankfully, Criterion has elected to release the film in a special edition, opening up the film to an entire generation of movie-goers, most of whom, I would wager, have never even heard of this always provocative, often downright incendiary exploration of racial identity and psychological manipulation.

It's ostensibly a crime thriller about a robbery-murder investigation, but with Mamet - the master of misdirection - you can be sure you'll get a whole lot more than genre thrills.

Mamet mainstay Joe Mantegna (best known for "House of Games," or as the voice of Fat Tony in "The Simpsons," if you're so inclined) stars as Bobby Gold, a Jewish homicide detective who claims his heritage only when it suits him - for instance, when it gives him an excuse to clobber a suspect who called him the dreaded k-word

Yet he has no real, tangible ties to his ethnicity, a character flaw that is called into question when a Jewish store owner is killed in an apparent robbery and her wealthy family enlists Gold to uncover the anti-Semitic conspiracy behind the murder.

Saying any more about the plot would be a tremendous disservice, as "Homicide" is the kind of movie that doesn't let you know where it's really headed until the very end.

There are no seismic plot twists, no major over-arching plot reversals with grandiose revelations - just certain pieces of information that are slowly revealed and culminate in the very last shot, a subtly devastating twist of the knife that says more about man's potential for self-deception and games-playing than perhaps anything else I've ever seen.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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