July 2, 2013

Jason Bourne in Middle Management

by Mark Paglia

The Informant (2009) - dir. Steven Soderbergh

I’ve always accepted Matt Damon as a versatile actor, but he does have a tendency towards one type of character: the peerless hero. The sort of person who’s just utterly better than everyone else. Sure, his characters probably harbor psychological stresses, but most screen time is taken up by feats of smooth perfection, be they intellectual (Good Will Hunting) or physical (the Bourne series). Even when he plays an everyman junior executive in Syriana, Damon winds up as an advisor to a foreign potentate, working his way into a muddled conspiracy theory and surviving missile strikes. The guy’s just unflappable.

Unless he is flappable for the purposes of comedy, as is the case in the Ocean’s movies, where he plays a quasi-nebbishy comic Bones to George Clooney and Brad Pitt’s Kirk and Spock. Though only quasi-nebbishy. Because while Linus, Damon’s character, gets flustered and serves as the butt of many jokes, he also shows considerable skill in pulling off heists. Linus is funny not only because of his embarrassments, but because of the incongruousness of a capable, handsome Matt Damon-type being so beleaguered. After all, we know we’re not just laughing at the misery of a pathetic loser because he can’t be a pathetic loser - he’s Matt Damon!

Which all serves a prologue to a terrific case of playing against type in The Informant!, a film that undercuts the Bourne-style glamour of espionage and inverts the Ocean’s formula of dealing setbacks to super-cool operators. Steven Soderbergh, also the director of the Ocean’s series, begins by doing the unthinkable: he make’s Matt Damon un-pretty. The cumbersome glasses, the helmet-like hairdo and wormy mustache, the eye-watering neckties, the slight paunch visible beneath his shirt - in Syriana Matt Damon played a business executive who looks like Matt Damon; in The Informant! he plays a business executive who looks like a business executive. The humor in watching his character Mark Whitacre is the inverse of watching Linus Caldwell: instead of laughing at a capable man screwing up, we can’t believe that this schlub in an ugly suit keeps doings things right.

As an anti-Jason Bourne, Mark Whitacre is a boring man trying to get information with minimal guidance and training. This sets up one of the running gags of the film, Whitacre’s self-aggrandizing belief that he actually is a spy like those depicted on movie screens. His casual reference to himself as 0014 (twice as smart as 007, though I wonder if 2 times 007 wouldn’t be 014), the Bond-esque sections of soundtrack, and the colorful mock-‘60s titles informing us of what city he’s in at various times all reinforce how Whitacre buys into the popular Hollywood image of a spy, even if he sees himself as more a Roger Moore than a Matt Damon. And this is only funny because within the world of the film, spying is dull. The real-life case that inspired the film involved agricultural companies committing price-fixing on feed additives, a true trifecta of boredom that Jason Bourne would just ignore while stopping evil C.I.A. supersoldier programs. Soderbergh and Damon are only able to make this interesting because of Whitacre’s oddities and delusions.

Speaking of delusions. We learn as the movie goes on that Whitacre is not being wholly honest with the F.B.I., or with us in the audience, since he addresses us in voice-over. Then, in addition to finding out that he’s lying to us, we find out that Whitacre has been suffering all along from bipolar disorder and the severe stress of leading an informant’s double-life. Suddenly we realize how deep his duplicity, which allowed him to function as an informant, goes. And we learn that rather than being a schlub who improbably made a good spy, Whitacre was a schlub who experienced very real schlubby problems related to his spying.

Both Soderbergh and Damon (as well as the screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns) do very specific things to increase the impact of these revelations. On the screenwriting/directing side of things, Whitacre imparts information to us throughout the film: either in voice-over or in conversation with another character he will describe a situation, which is later verified by other characters on-screen. But at a certain point the verification stops coming, and we’re left to wonder if what Whitacre says is true. On the flip side, small seemingly throwaway scenes early in the movie resurface as evidence of Whitacre’s confabulation. This is telegraphed very early in a subtle little twist: in one of the first voice-overs, Whitacre mentions that though his German is rusty, he loves the typically complex German word for “pen.” Still in the first act of the movie, a European character alerts Whitacre in German to the fact that his pen has gotten ink all over his dress shirt, but Whitacre doesn’t understand until the character repeats it in English. Watching it the first time, the scene appears to be inserted to show how hapless our protagonist is. Upon repeat viewing, it’s another example of Whitacre’s lies being exposed.

Damon, for his part, plays Whitacre in a way that makes it impossible to tell when he’s lying. Whether he’s making something up or accurately recounting events, Damon uses the same exuberant earnestness that makes Whitacre sound like maybe he’s just trying to please people by giving them invented answers. Take a minor scene in the middle of the movie: while on a business flight, a fellow executive asks whatever happened to a former secretary. Whitacre replies that she’s actually about to get married in the near future, and the conversation goes in another direction. But for the audience the question lingers: is Whitacre just saying that because he wants to sound knowledgeable and wants to satisfy his coworker’s curiosity? Is it just a weird coincidence that the secretary is about to be married, or is Whitacre subtly antagonizing the coworker, who expresses lust for her? And how easily can Whitacre transfer his aptitude for quick conversational invention to much more serious situations? The only clear answer is that Damon knows how to keep us guessing as to his truthfulness.

It’s worth pointing out that Mark Whitacre is not simply an Inspector Clouseau who serendipitously succeeds despite massive incompetence. Sure, there are some comic scenes of him bumbling, but there’s also a scene where he deftly reorganizes the seats at a conspirators’ meeting so that the F.B.I. see all of the attendees with a hidden camera. As the end credits remind us, the real-life Mark Whitacre unmasked a major scam conducted by the agriculture industry against consumers. As a character in the film, he embodies all of the double identities and deep duplicity that get hidden behind Jason Bourne’s stony face and played up as jokes with Linus Caldwell. And Matt Damon portrays Whitacre as a much more complex character than either of those two. This is to be expected when comparing a based-on-true-events schlub to genre heroes, but it remains an impressive acting turn. Damon proves that he’s not limited to playing handsome, stoic good guys. He can also play a conflicted, deluded, all-too-human jumble of contradictions who both is and isn’t the cinematic superspy he aspires to be.

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