True-life stories rarely make great movies.
Oh, sure, you can probably read me a list of big important Oscar-winning based-on-a-true-story movies without even trying, and I'll happily admit there are exceptions to the rule, but I stand by my basic position. Typically, "true" movies are about Important Things, or they feature Great Performances, and most of the time when I hear that a film is a dramatic retelling of real events or a biography of a real person, the end result strikes me as antiseptic, dull.
The problem, of course, is reverence towards one's subject. If you're Richard Attenborough and you're making a movie about Gandhi, you're going to err on the side of respect every time, and why wouldn't you? These real-life figures cast enormous cultural shadows, and trying to dramatize their lives has got to be like swimming in handcuffs.
If you ask me, Steven Soderbergh hit that particular creative wall at about 150 miles per hour with "Che," his two-part 600-hour biopic about Che Guevara. I can respect the level of committment from Benecio Del Toro and admire the filmmaking, but I can still readily admit that the movie is inert, a seemingly endless montage of bearded dudes introducing themselves to each other in the jungle.
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What I love about Soderbergh, though, is that the guy never dwells on thing creatively, and he rarely repeats himself. Even when he made three films in the same franchise, he seemed determined to burn down the formula each time. So it shouldn't be a surprise that although his new film takes him down the same "based on a true" story path as "Erin Brockovich" or "Che,' his latest succeeds because he's tried something truly different with it, giving it a much-needed dose of wild irreverence.
And why not? The story of Mark Whitacre is a ridiculous one, and Soderbergh must have been drawn in by the spectacular pathology of this whistleblowing weenie, because "The Informant!" turns out to be one of the liveliest entertainments of Soderbergh's career. It helps that Matt Damon seems to have absolutely no ego in his approach to playing Whitacre. It's not the sort of performance we're used to seeing from movie stars, but it's just further proof that Damon cares about the work, not his image.
What would motivate an executive making over $300,000 a year to roll over on his company, turning them in to the government, ready to spill the details on industry-wide price-fixing?
That central question could easily be the engine that drives a hard-hitting drama, as I'm sure Michael Mann would happily attest, but there's something about the notion of wire taps and skullduggery over the price of corn syrup that is just ridiculous, and Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, acknowledge that fully in their approach. Much of the cast is made up of experienced comic performers like Scott Bakula or Joel McHale, or actual stand-up comedians like Paul F. Tompkins and Patton Oswalt. Soderbergh's use of Marvin Hamlisch to contribute the score is farly risky, since the result sounds resolutely out-of-step with most contemporary soundtracks. It pays off, though. The score is exactly the music that Matt Damon's character would hear as he moves through his day, thinking he's the lead character in a spy movie, self-aggrandizing to the point of absurdity.
"The Informant!" could be accused of being slight, but I don't think that's the wrong approach. Mark Whitacre is a slight man, in terms of what he brings to the table. He's a liar, a demented accident that blew through a lot of lives, and when it matters, Soderbergh makes that real. He never lets Whitacre off the hook, and the film isn't laughing at him so much as it's laughing at just how far the situation spiralled out of control. This sort of smart, breezy entertainment for adults is increasingly rare these days, making this all the more welcome, and a great kick-off to the fall season.
"The Informant!" opens in theaters in the US on September 18th.
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