Reviews: Out of Sight & The Informant!

Steven Soderbergh knows how to make movies. A man of varying tastes and talents, his 20-odd films range from fun caper flick to intense character-driven collage to esoteric sci-fi to mainstream drama to… well, you get the picture. He’s directed some insanely successful films (Ocean’s Eleven, Erin Brokovitch) as well as some more obtuse ones (Che, The Girlfriend Experience). Today Ben Vernel will be looking at one of Soderbergh’s first true hits as well as one of his more recent ‘hard to place’-ers.

Out of Sight, as alluded to above, was Steven Soderbergh’s first real hit. In it, George Clooney plays Jack Foley, serial bank robber and roguish protagonist. Jennifer Lopez plays Karen Sisco, conflicted cop. Steve Zahn features as schizophrenic accomplice Glenn Michaels and Ving Rhames plays Buddy, Foley’s stolid partner in crime. These four are our main characters, with Catherine Keener’s Adele and Don Cheadle’s Maurice providing excellent support.

It’s hard to really dive in to a review of this film, because it’s hard to know where to start. No one aspect stands out as being clearly the best or most effective, with the writing, acting, directing, editing and music all doing exactly what they need to. This chain has no weak link. Clooney is the same Clooney that Clooney always is* – a variation on his Ulysses from Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and even Up In The Air‘s Ryan Bingham – and he Cloons it up like no one’s business here. And it works perfectly. Jack Foley is charming – it’s how he manages to rob banks – and with Clooney playing him, we believe it. J-Lo is pretty damn good, too. Acting amongst a pretty great cast, she holds her own. The story, based on an Elmore Leonard novel, is good enough. It serves as a way to cause the characters to interact, basically. There’s incentive, conflict and resolution. And a hell of a lot of great dialogue, dynamic directing and excellent music; this, of course, will come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with even the most populist of Soderbergh’s work (the Ocean’s movies). Out of Sight is a great movie. It features a fantastic cast, slick directing, a smooth score and smart writing. The plot twists and turns without becoming overly complex, giving the characters room to move (and develop). If you haven’t seen Out of Sight, you should.

*I fully appreciate the versatility of the Cloon but he does have a certain, specific role/type which he occasionally pulls out when it’s needed (that’s what she said).

The Informant! is a very different beast and serves to show, in that difference, how much Soderbergh has grown as a filmmaker. Instead of a young, handsome George Clooney, we are led through the story by an overweight, mustachioed Matt Damon. Instead of the super-cool 60s mambo/soul/funk/hiphop soundtrack that graced Out of Sight and the Ocean’s movies, The Informant! features a faux-James Bond, big band, overwrought score that is, on the surface, totally ridiculous.  Ridiculous music and fat Damon may not sound like growth, but they are. They symbolize a willingness to eschew populism and delve into less comfortable stories. This film is a work of strategic manipulation and of pure modern storytelling, driven by a convincing lead performance and an skilled hand at the tiller.

Matt Damon is Mark Whitacre, well-meaning executive at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM for short) who finds himself in a sticky situation. Voluntarily providing information implicating his company in price-fixing, Whitacre becomes embroiled in a long investigation in which he was the main – nay, only – source of information. The film is narrated by Damon-as-Whitacre and the narration itself provides most of the laughs and much of the exposition, and this voiceover takes on a new meaning as the truths about Whitacre and ADM come out over the course of the film. Damon is excellent, portraying Whitacre as enthusiastically oblivious, essentially a nice guy caught in a bad situation.

Scott Bakula is great as long-suffering FBI Agent Brian Shepard, with Joel McHale putting in a solid supporting turn as Agent Herndon. Melanie Lynsky (of Heavenly Creatures fame) is also pretty fun as Whitacre’s wife Ginger. Oh, and a special mention to Thomas Wilson – Biff from Back To The Future and Coach Fredericks from Freaks & Geeks – who pops up in a supporting role as one of Whitacre’s colleagues. The film features many comedic actors in minor roles, from 30 Rock‘s Scott Adsit to Patton Oswalt to Arrested Development‘s Tony Hale. This lends credence to the theory that the film is meant to play as a farce, a vividly stylized version of events seen through the eyes of its protagonist. These guys are funny, but they’re also subtly off-kilter in a way which effects the audience’s viewing of the film in a really subversive manner. A lot of the film’s elements – score, wardrobe, cast, lighting, performance – is a little larger than life, playing into the theory that this is Whitacre’s perception of his own story.

Everything that seems initially out of place (voiceover, score) takes on a new meaning as the story unfolds, and Soderbergh manages to make the whole thing enjoyable to watch. Definitely worth a look.

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