So once again we have survived.

The Informant! and The Girlfriend Experience

tn_informant!Today I have a Steve Soderbergh double feature. I got his new one, THE INFORMANT! followed by his previous one, THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE.

Twenty years after SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE and Steve Soderbergh is still experimenting up a storm. This year he’s alternating a low budget improvised drama starring a porn star (more on that later) with this big studio comedy starring Matt Damon. But as far as Soderbergh’s commercial movies go THE INFORMANT! is on the weirder end. He takes the true story of a corporate crime whistleblower who helped the FBI crack open a huge price fixing scandal, but he plays it as a broad comedy.

mp_informant!It does have the elements of a more serious movie – a huge ensemble cast, lots of businessmen, criminals and federal agents in their suits, talking in their offices, in clandestine meeting spots. It has plenty of too-complex-for-me-to-follow procedural detail about the production of lysine, the methods of price fixing and the way the FBI and the Justice Department work together to find evidence strong enough to hold up in court. But then he uses this goofy upbeat soundtrack by Marvin Hamlisch  and casts a whole bunch of comedians to play straight men: the cast includes Joel McHale, Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins, Tom Papa, Tony Hale from ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, Andrew Daly from EASTBOUND AND DOWN, Scott Adsit from 30 ROCK, Biff from BACK TO THE FUTURE, and both Smothers Brothers. And I’m not joking, they’re both in it in different scenes.

Those guys all play it seriously though, while Damon gets to be really funny as Mark Whitacre, the biochemist turned corporate criminal turned snitch. I mean we’re kind of conditioned to laugh when the dude from BOURNE IDENTITY gets chubby, grows a terrible mustache and wears bad ties, wire rimmed glasses and various old man windbreakers. But the character is not some schlubby Erin Brockovich. I think the FBI first just assumes he’s a moron, and slowly realizes he’s nuts. Alot of the laughs come from the luck he has in pulling off his undercover work despite being completely incompetent – for example, the scene where the FBI agents watch helplessly on a spy camera while he opens up his briefcase right in front of his targets to mess with the recording device inside. And none of them notice.

I also love little odd things he says. When he needs to adjust his microphone during a shady meeting in Japan he doesn’t say he has to go to the bathroom, he says, “Excuse me, I have to take a comfort break.” He keeps mentioning John Grisham, Tom Cruise in THE FIRM, and how things are “straight out of a Crichton novel!”

Then there’s this voiceover device that reminded me a little bit of AMERICAN PSYCHO – he keeps narrating but instead of offering some helpful insights half the time it’s some inane shit about ties being on sale or something. At the beginning when he’s explaining the lysine business at first it seems like an important explanation for the story, then it kind of drifts away into some guy boring you with work talk. Even when he’s kind of on topic with what’s going on sometimes he’s talking about something really goofy, like his theories about a polar bear’s understanding of his nose being the only part of his body that’s not white.

These voiceovers are amusing but start to outstay their welcome – and then suddenly Soderbergh uses it to pull a pretty cool trick. In a conversation we keep hearing Mark’s lies go through his head before he says them. Then when he’s asked why he keeps lying we hear the honest answer before the phony one. For some reason it reminded me of that part in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE where the images show what Tom Cruise is figuring out really happened while his voiceover is him telling the bad guy what he wants to hear.

Clancy Brown plays a lawyer, but you don’t see too much of him. Scott Bakula is the standout of the non-comedians as a decent FBI agent who seems to feel a twinge of guilt about letting this nut dig himself into a hole for their investigation. But, you know, not that much, because he shouldn’t. I really liked seeing him in this role. I think it’s time for a comebakula. I also thought Melanie Lynskey (the other HEAVENLY CREATURE) was really good as Whitacre’s loyal but more-reasonable-than-him wife.

It’s an entertaining movie, lots of laughs, well made, and an interesting story. But actually it was an interesting enough story that more than anything it made me want to read the book to find out the real story. A lesser Soderbergh effort, but a good one.

mp_girlfriendexperienceTHE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE
(note: not 3-D IMAX EXPERIENCE, just regular EXPERIENCE)

First thing’s first – this is much different from the other Sasha Grey movies you’ve seen, like FUCK SLAVES or SASHA GREY’S ANATOMY. I don’t just mean because there’s none of that S&M or butt stuff. I mean no sex or nudity at all. And not that it was cut out, like in the R-rated cut of PIRATES II: STAGNETTI’S REVENGE, but it never was there at all. Seems like a risky way to do a porno, but people jerk off to all kinds of weird shit, I guess.

The pornos I would compare this to most would not be ASS EATERS UNANIMOUS 19, BUTTMAN’S STRETCH CLASS 2 or even THIS AIN’T STAR TREK. It’s actually more in line with Steve Soderbergh’s other improvised digital experiments like FULL FRONTAL (also not hardcore) and BUBBLE, low budget affairs from what for now on everyone should always call Soderbergh’s Strictly 4 My Homiez series. Actually most of all it reminded me of the TV shows he produced with George Clooney, UNSCRIPTED and K STREET, which I think are his most successful uses of this style so far. It’s non-actors having actual conversations, low on plot, not scripted, edited together from lots of footage, like a documentary. When he starts out I don’t think he has much of an idea how or where they’ll end up, he’s just freestyling, taking a director’s walkabout. He takes a topic, a theme, a place, and he riffs on it. So he doesn’t really make a point, he just explores.

This one centers around an upscale New York City escort (Grey). She’s meeting with her regular clients, rich guys who pay big bucks for kissing, conversations and dates along with their sex. Meanwhile, she has an actual boyfriend named Chris (Chris Santos) who’s a personal trainer, so as it cuts back and forth between them you see how both careers are based on somewhat forced or artificial relationships. They’re both kind of hoping to make connections with their clients but they’re also trying to get money, so how could it ever happen? Both of them have to fit in with rich people – Chris goes on a Vegas trip with a stockbroker client and his buddies. And this all takes place during the ’08 election, at the start of the financial crisis, so they all have their opinions on that and have to show off about it.

The most memorable part of the movie involves the sleaziest character I’ve seen in a while, The Erotic Connoisseur. He’s a hairy, arrogant prick who lives in a warehouse in the back of his elderly dad’s furniture store. He convinces her to give him a freebie on the theory that a positive review on his websight will allow her to raise her rates. Then he gives her a bad review. The funniest part is his bragging about a “junket” to Dubai he’s planning. They’ll all fly first class and there’ll be cocaine and “all kinds of yummy stuff.” I mean, this is the worst guy ever. And the punchline is when I saw the credits and realized it was Glenn Kenny, the critic from Premiere Magazine when it still existed, before they started sending me fuckin Us Magazine instead.

I’m not sure how you’re supposed to feel about Grey’s character, which is fine, but I’m also not sure how I do feel about her. She’s sympathetic, but not really likable. Her reasons for doing what she does aren’t explored (she just says she didn’t want to take her father’s money). She seems to do very well but also is kind of gullible with people taking or trying to take advantage of her. Approving or disapproving of what she does seems kind of beside the point. It seems more relevant that she has a business just like anyone else and has to work with web designers and promotion and shit. And probly gets more hits than I do.

Well, I gotta say, as much as I’d rather look at a pretty girl than a middle aged KFC manager, I thought BUBBLE was kind of more interesting. And K STREET, maybe because it had more time to get into detail and starred James Carville and Mary Matalin as themselves, was a better look at the rich fuckers who ruin our lives over there. Also I really didn’t understand the significance of when it ended – to me the edit from movie to credits seemed like an arbitrary pressing of a button. But it was probly over my head.

Still, I think THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE serves its purpose in the Strictly 4 My Homiez series. It’s worth watching once and it recharges his batteries so he’ll still have energy when he starts shooting his kickass spy movie with Gina Carano.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Sunday, September 20th, 2009 at 7:35 pm and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

40 Responses to “The Informant! and The Girlfriend Experience”

  1. Thanks Vern.

    And yeah, Bakula is underrated. He was terrific though in Clive Barker’s LORD OF ILLUSIONS as the supernatural P.I. Its better than it sounds.

    Interesting you bring up the spy project of his, since Cronenberg is working on one too with Cruise and Washington.

    Be interesting to see how those two guys cook their spy chili.

  2. Ocean’s 12 remains his weakest movie ever. Really didn’t like that one at all, on any level, except for the fact that Damon got to do more then in the original. I like that character alot so that was cool. And the Topher Grace scene was funny. Nothing else about that movie clicked.

  3. Vern, you’re a madman with the reviews lately. I think Stephen King is the only one able to publish this fast.

  4. what would happen if Stephen King and Vern teamed up?

  5. YEah but is King’s output as worth reading as Vern’s?

    I think not.

  6. Comebakula? Well done, sir.

  7. Well, “Cujo” was pretty good, but I coined the word comebakula. So fuck that guy.

  8. I think you’re just bitter that the chubby, wussy kid in STAND BY ME was named “Vern”.

  9. “But it was probly over my head.”
    “Probly”? And to think you made fun of that guy who used “Lady’s” for Ladies in the Teen Wolf Too thread.
    Kudos on comebakula though.

  10. Yeah the reviews are coming too fast, I’m starting to get suspicious about how this man makes a living. Hmm.

    Oh and yesterday I dreamed that Vern reviewed the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. So naturally I demand that review.

  11. Comebakula is the most important advance in every language EVER. Light years ahead of the competition . It’s also the perfect title for a time-traveling-vampire movie .

  12. I gotta say, I think THE INFORMANT! is actually a very timely film for Soderbergh to make because like Damon’s Whitacre character, our country is just now finding out the consequences of a decade of relentless lying. I truly 100% believe Whitarce is a full on mataphor for the American people. Think about it. He’s this bubbly, dorky, nice, rich guy. Smart, educated, loves his family, with strong and deeply held moral convictions about the world. So strong that he’s willing to take on a huge and potentially life-ruining risk and shoulder the burden for however long it takes to get the job done. So where’s the criticism? Well, he’s so deeply invested in this fantasy view of himself that he is almost dissociated from all the horribly unethical things he’s doing. He has no trouble thinking of himself as the “guy in the white hat” even as he’s enthusiastically engaged in doing exactly what the people he despises are doing. And of course, it doesn’t even cross his mind that there might be negative consequences to doing what he’s doing. He absolutely cannot let anything change his idea of who he is and what he’s doing, so when the ideal and the real diverge, he just lies until it feel right again. He’s not even lying to everyone else as much as he is to himself.

    Mark, like the American people, hasn’t just been a little greedy and corrupt — he’s been engaged in a pathological and ever-escalating attempt to lie enough that the truth changes. And even as he knows he’s lying, he ends up feeling like the lie is more real than the truth. It’s a classic case of “truthiness.” Everyone is confused about his ability and vigor at living a double life — but of course, he has already been for years. We all have. We’ve been living our real life, where we’re petty and exploitive and actively engaged with taking as much as we can and punishing anyone who complains — and our imaginary life, where we tell ourselves that we’re the ones in the white hat. The orphans who caught a break. The only difference between us and Whitacre (or, for that matter, any of the other characters) is that someone with the power to find out the truth decided to take a closer look at his life than anyone ever had so far. Becuase how often do we really ask? It’s a full time job keeping up with our own lies.

    When Alain Resnais made HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR, he called it a “documentary on memory”* I would argue that under the guise of making a comedy based on a true story Soderbergh has actually made a documentary on lying. On the way people lie, the way they get away with it, the way one lie turns into a whole double life. About WHY people lie. Why they need it, how it defines them. Hell, the whole idea that this is based on a true story is itself kind of a shopworn cinematic lie, which is sort of coyly acknowledged in the opening titles. I think it a fascinating and absolutely timely film for Soderbergh to be making. Bravo!

    *or possibly Marguerite Duras, I can’t remember and can’t seem to find the quote online

  13. Mr. S – OK mate, you just convinced me to actually watch it in theatres. Good job.

  14. Mr. Subtlety:

    First rate post. Thank you.

    SirV

  15. Mr. S, you magnificent son of a bitch. Thank you for bringing up one of my favorite French New Wave movies in a Steven Soderbergh thread. It’s pure bilingual awesomeness. I’m tempted to say it was the screenwriter’s quote, because of the story behind his work. So it goes, Dumas was being sent to the concentration camps in WW II. He was packed in, along with all the other jews of his area, in a cattle car.

    Somewhere along the way he forgot everything. Total amnesia. Surrounded by a mass of strangers wailing, sobbing, and contemplating their fates. He became firmly convinced that, if he didn’t remember who he was, then he would die in the camp. Memory, he realized, was all that remained to affirm his identity. Without it, he was already gone. This revelation impacted, not just Hiroshima, Mon Amour, but also Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel. Of course, all of these movies were made with Resnais, so he could have been quoting based on his writer’s insights.

    Man, I didn’t think I’d wake up and get to go off on this tangent. Thanks again Mr. S; you kicked my week off right.

    Oh, and I’m so seeing the Informant. Lying seems to be epidemic in America right now, and really for the last decade when viewing the media (some media more than others). It’s become an echo chamber where distortions and slander get perpetuated, regardless of the facts thrown their way. Any society where facts aren’t paramount teeters on a very slippery slope. Apropos of this, Vern; keep throwing in the politics whenever you feel. It’s always appreciated in this corner.

  16. Oh man, 3D Modeling » Blog Archive » How to Behave in a 3d School, you always say the craziest things. Where do you come up with this stuff?

  17. Subtlety – sold.

    Stu – I wasn’t making fun of the guy for writing “lady’s and gentlemen,” he was quoting me. I was disappointed in my lack of excellence on that spelling. But only that specific one.

  18. Hey, somebody else has watched K Street! I knew there was a reason I liked you, Vern.

    TOMMY FLANAGAN: So are you a Democrat?
    FRANCISCO DUPREE: Are you from Boston?
    TOMMY FLANAGAN: Good, uh…good switch.

  19. Thanks for the nice words, guys. Between this and INVENTION OF LYING, I’m kind of wondering if the subject is on a lot of screenwriter’s minds these days (hell, it ought to be). I’d also be remiss if I didn’t take every opportunity avaliable to mention that other great ode to the transformative power of lying, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (although its a few years older now).

    Bad Seed- ditto on the HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR love. Please don’t get the idea THE INFORMANY\ is as good as that — it ain’t, and there ain’t much else that is (although its perfectly mesmerizing in its own weird way). Never heard that story about Duras (btw, think she’s a woman, unless IMBD got the gender pronoun consistently wrong) nor did I know she was a holocaust victim, although the Vichy France thing figures into the screenplay of HIROSHIMA a little. Very interesting tale indeed. Glad to help you start the week right!

  20. The ending to GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE played for solid laughs in the cinema I saw it in. Everybody who was there just laughed out loud at its abruptness. I think the movie is almost worth seeing for the WTF factor of that ending alone.

    It’s a strange movie because its main theme is about whether feelings you pay for are genuine. Both the lead character and her boyfriend are payed to form relationships with their clients and the clients on some level acknowledge they are fake, but the relationships also end up being kinda real too, sometimes more real for them than the clients. But as a result the audience ends up in the same shoes as the characters in this film is in: wondering what is real and what’s being faked.

    It’s a character/mood film that is going for something along the lines of an Agnes Varda film and as a result it is similiarly mesmerizingly boring. It’s dry and unsastifying yet I could strangely see myself putting it on and watching it again.

  21. Thanks for pointing that out Mr. S. After you mentioned that I decided to research the story (its been nine years since I last heard it, in a horror movie class of all places). Turns out that it was the screenwriter of “Muriel” and “Night and Fog,” Jean Cayrol, who went to the camp after being betrayed by someone in the French resistance. It was his story, not hers. However, I remember the professor saying that the writer worked on the other two movies—but perhaps not enough to get a credit, according to wikipedia. Without a doubt though, Cayrol’s experience influenced Resnais. They first collaborated in 1955 for “Night and Fog,” before the next two films, so Resnais must have been aware of it.

    Of course, the irony of my falter memory leading to an amendment of a previous post regarding memory should in no way allow this thread to spiral out of control into a meme of post-modern revision.

    Although, that might be fun.

  22. I actually live in Decatur, IL, and I imagine that the movie might be a little harder to follow for people not from around here, since we already know all about ADM and corn and lysine, but I also think it’s probably funnier if you know less about it. For me, it all seemed rather uninteresting. It was funny because everybody made a big deal about the movie filming here, even though it doesn’t really picture the town in the best light. I heard a rumor that The Informant wasn’t always supposed to be a comedy, and watching it I felt like they filmed a drama and then added the goofy narration and soundtrack at the last minute, but that wouldn’t explain the presence of all the comedians. Of course, they aren’t really being funny, so who knows?

  23. You might be right.

    Remember CASINO where Scorsese casted several comedians from Smothers to Don Rickles in serious parts? Shit Pesci even started out as a stand-up comedian.

    I dont think CASINO was planned as a funny, unless ice picks stabbing balls makes you laugh. Or an employee of Troma.

  24. I’m sorry, but if you don’t think an ice pick to the sac is comedy gold then we are simply not speaking the same language.

  25. Brendan – You know what’s funnier? Getting buried in a fucking cornfield.

  26. But the real creme de la creme is getting buried in a cornfield naked after being beat with baseball bats! How has no one else ever mined this comedy gold before, it’s crazy!

  27. I guess Futurama came pretty close to depicting that exact “cornfield” scenario for laughs, except instead of baseball bats it was comically protracted machine gun fire. The robot mafia don might be among the more amusing clueless characters ever created.

    But back on topic: I’m glad to see Tony Hale getting work. He was brilliant on AREESTED DEVELOPMENT.

  28. Tony Hale was the most underrated castmember of Arrested Development.

  29. I don’t know, he was very very funny on that show no question, but Buster was always the weakest character. It seemed like every season they had to reinvent who he was to try and keep us from getting bored with him. Not a bad thing, mind you, but it compared to the rest of the characters it wasn’t super-strong.

  30. I agree about Buster as character, but I will be damned if he didn’t manage to make me constantly laugh during the show’s whole run, mostly due to Hale’s performance.

  31. “Buster, I thought you had class?”

    “I thought YOU had class!”

    The second time this little gem of an exchange happens is priceless.

  32. Actually Tony Hale is the one kind of odd fit in this movie. He’s the only cast member who seems to think he’s in a comedy and though his over-the-top bafflement is pretty funny it struck me as kind of out of place when everyone else (except Damon) is completely fucking deadpan. Hale’s always pretty great, though.

    Still, I don’t buy the “they-decided-it-was-a-comedy-later.” I think they just purposely made a comedy where only one guy seems to think its a comedy, and he’s the one that stands to lose the most.

    I have to say, I think the way they handle all the lawyers and government types in the movie is perfect. Seems like all we ever see on-screen is charismatic, handsome trial lawyers, who are defined as characters by their jobs (“just like in a Chriton novel!” Whitacre would say). Here, they’re schlubby, government beauracrat types. You can tell that this is just a day job to them; they go in, check up on some long-running cases, lock up at the end of the day and don’t think about work again until the next morning. Even the FBI guys who work with Whitacre seem like they wouldn’t be particularly devestated if their case dissolved tomorrow. They’d be annoyed, sure, but hell, its just a job. Casting comedians in these roles is kind of cool because they’re not intense, passionate star-type people, but are more fun to watch than typical central-casting guys. You can tell they’re sort of amazed by the whole thing and how crazy it is, but not enough to not wish they were somewhere else. Living in DC, these guys are everywhere, so I was pleased to see Soderbergh has a good sense of them.

  33. Way up above, Griff asked “what would happen if Stephen King and Vern teamed up?”

    The answer: SOMETIMES THEY COMEBAKULA

  34. I’ll politely beg to differ about the Buster character on ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. I’d venture to say that the Buster character had some of the most hilarious and poingnant backstory cutaway sequences, like when young Buster punishes the maid by throwing her
    favorite “toy” at her “car.”

    Not only would I say that Buster’s history is better fleshed out than the other characters’, but that Hale inhabits the character with much more gravity. As far as I’m concerned, only Jessica Walter rivals the depths of Hale’s
    performance.

    Having said that, the show would have benefitted from giving Buster more to do outside the mother-son dynamic
    (which is not to suggest that Motherboy wasn’t sheer genius). But unlike the similarly limited Tobias Fünke character, I find that Hale’s
    performance found nuances and variations on his schtick that David Cross wasn’t really able to achieve.

    But hey, the show was populated with so many great characters and performances that, really, you could make a case for any one of them. Even Steve Holt. Steve Holt!

  35. Mike V: Damn, that’s some good puntificating.

  36. OCEANS 12 was pretty weak, but only because it the first one had looked like a bunch of rich, successful actors having a really good time playing at being master thieves, and the second one had to throw in this you-know-she-looks-JUST-like-Julia-Roberts bullshit that was just way too much.

    I did like that line about Brad Pitt saying that it wasn’t in his nature to be mysterious, but he couldn’t talk about and couldn’t say why, and then he just walks off. But that was about it.

    I look forward to THE INFORMANT though.

  37. So I just rented Girlfriend Experience on Blu Ray, which I actually thought was kind of a funny contradiction, but WOW what an amazing looking movie. The lighting, the composition, the subtle camera moves – for a quick, cheaply made movie, it looks like ALOT of thought went into its construction. Any frame from this movie belongs in an art gallery; it’s that good. It’s funny how everyone now tries to get gritty “realism” via Bourne-style shakycam (even during dialogue scenes) – meanwhile Soderbergh acheives it just by plopping his camera down somewhere like a fly on the wall and watching things unfold. Overall definitely not as involving as Bubble (the Robert Pollard score for that one really helped), but fascinating nonetheless.

    And on a side note – as a connoisseur of Sasha Grey’s previous work – she’s outstanding here and actually seems WAY more sympathetic and likable here than in her dayjob. It’s really genius casting when you think about it – a movie about people paying for sex who are really seeking warmth and companionship (hence the title), starring a porn star who shows real vulnerability despite a reputation as being cold and distant. So 1) I always maintained Jenna Haze should have been the one to get a mainstream breakthrough, but I honestly don’t think she could have pulled this off. 2) I always kinda joked that Megan Fox was “the poor man’s Sasha Grey” but I may have to stop saying that ironically now.

  38. Hey Vern, I thought the last shot of TGE was great. Maybe in theaters it was more confusing, but on video you can just roll it back and look again. On a second viewing it seemed pretty obvious to me we were watching that guy go through an orgasm from start to finish. The fact that all he needs to achieve it is to tenderly hold someone in his arms says a lot about what all these characters are really after, and maybe even what it means to be a human being. It’s sweet, and kind of sad.

  39. just finished the informant. funny shit, Whitacre is a great character to watch. solid comedy.

  40. hooray! now I can have my own girlfriend experience!

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