The Set of 400: #94 – My Favorite Incriminating Area Code

Today! Because it’s not just lysine, it’s citric. It’s gluconate. There was a guy who left the company because he wouldn’t do it. He was forced out. The gluconate guy, he’s out of a job –

The Informant! (2009)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh (x3)

Starring Matt Damon (x7), Scott Bakula, Joel McHale (x2), Melanie Lynskey, Tony Hale, Tom Papa (x2), Rick Overton, Thomas F. Wilson (x2), Scott Adsit (x2), Ann Dowd, Patton Oswalt (x2), Andrew Daly (x2), Clancy Brown (x3), Tom Smothers, Dick Smothers, Paul F. Tompkins (x2), Candy Clark (x2), Frank Welker (x2), Larry Clarke, Eddie Jemison (x2), Allan Havey, Ann Cusack (x3)

One of the most underrated comedies of recent times, The Informant! is a brilliant, hilarious true story centered around the very sexy, cinematic subject of price fixing in the lysine market. Thus, the trailers had no idea how to convey the story, never mind the tone, so the movie was an almost complete mystery when it was released. I know people who saw this movie and hated it – expectations being for a fairly normal film at the least, but what you get one of the most unreliable narrators ever taking you through a film filled with great comedians not being obviously funny. The subtlety of the movie, the quiet satire of super corrupt big business in a very dull corner of corporate America, populated by the likes of Scott Adsit, Tony Hale, Patton Oswalt, and the Smothers Brothers playing lawyers and government agents and judges heightens the ridiculousness of, again, a relatively normal setting. It’s just oft-kilter enough, just five degrees off center at all times, so that the longer you don’t buy into the manner the story is being told, the less you can possibly enjoy the weirdness.

Really, the only funny character is Damon’s pudgy, self-confident insider Mark Whitacre – a career best performance of such delicate skill that you root for Whitacre while also finding yourself bewildered by his incessant lies and excuses. The movie lets the audience in on Whitacre’s thoughts, but only reveals the facts when the agents also discover them, so you end up equally as amazed by Whitacre’s colossal buffoonery. We’re never ahead of the law in the film – Bakula and McHale’s terrific FBI men Shepard and Herndon react for all of us at the same time.

We are all Brian and Bob

Beyond the litany of great performances – Tony Hale as Mark’s lawyer, Melanie Lynskey’s great work as his egregiously supportive wife – it’s the string of details and choices that elevate this film to almost genius level comedy. There’s no reference to Mark’s obvious wig (you wonder if it’s just a make-up choice by the filmmakers) until, very upset, he absentmindedly adjusts it nearing the end of the movie. The goofy, circus-esque music that plays over the otherwise serious goings on, just taking the edge off FBI raids and arrests. With only this music playing, Mark’s terrible attempting to beat the lie detector. His parents’ (great Candy Clark/Frank Welker cameos) reaction on learning Mark’s been telling everyone they’ve been dead for years. Mark’s face when the judge compliments him, turning to see if the courtroom audience is impressed, even though this obviously isn’t going well.

We saw this in theaters, and we liked it, but it’s not a film to blow you away at first blush. Again, the humor is largely subtle, and you have to buy into Damon’s Whitacre early on to really enjoy it. It’s hard to get a sense of Mark as a character because he’s so comically deceptive, keeping you at an arm’s length even though you’re with him the entire film. But this does goose the surprise twists he reveals, as we don’t have any reason to see them coming, until they start snowballing. It was a movie we kept talking about and quoting and then rewatching until it became a staple around the house. “The gluconate guy, he’s out of a job.” “I think maybe I should go back to the hospital.” “It’s all dump on Mark Whitacre.”

This is the third Soderbergh movie on the list, after #172 Out of Sight and #249 Ocean’s Eleven, and my favorite of his films, including our collaboration Contagion, filmed partly in Chicago and featuring me in the background inside a building out of focus while Kate Winslet is getting into a car (She’s also on the phone with the film’s Patient X while he rides a bus, that I was also on, but am not visible in the scene. Ah, extra work! Crafty on that one was excellent!). I’m as surprised as anyone to find this is Matt Damon’s Seven-Timer ticket, but I guess all those Bournes – #118, #195, #125, in order – add up (also, #186 Talented Mr. Ripley, #208 Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Ocean’s Eleven). Spotlight!

“Secret agent 0014 – ’cause I’m twice as smart as 007.”

Coming Monday! My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you –

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