Last year at this time, the Coen Brothers were treating (or mistreating, depending on your point of view) audiences with their off-kilter offering Burn After Reading, a dark comedy flexing a quirky brand of lunacy not usually seen in comparable American fare. Like the Coens, Steven Soderbergh is no stranger to coloring outside the margins, so in a similar vein, he presents The Informant!, a like-it-or-leave-it endeavor blessed with a terrific central performance from Matt Damon.
Damon, who's a better actor than he's often given credit for being (as evidence, check out his potent one-two punch from 2006: The Departed and The Good Shepherd), leaves behind Jason Bourne's muscularity and goes all pudgy as Mark Whitacre, a midlevel executive at the major conglomeration Archer Daniels Midland. Whitacre seems like a pleasant enough fellow, so when he approaches FBI agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) volunteering to uncover a price-fixing racket at the company, they believe he might be honest when he claims he's turning whistleblower because it's the right thing to do. Unfortunately, with Mark Whitacre, there's far more than meets the eye. Whitacre has a way of embellishing some stories and leaving crucial facts out of other ones, which leads to no small amount of frustration for the agents trying to do their jobs. In Whitacre's mind, he's the hero of this particular saga, but to everyone else, he might merely be a lying nutjob.
In adapting Kurt Eichenwald's book The Informant (A True Story), scripter Scott Z. Burns and Soderbergh find the proper consistent tone to allow this to function as a loopy satire (in other words, no one will be confusing this with the somber drama The Insider). Yet even within the constraints of what often feels like a coldly calculating gameplan, there's some genuine poignancy on tap, made palatable by a sterling performance from Damon that allows the character to come off as clueless and immature rather than simply Machiavellian. This generous interpretation in turn fuels the film's comedic quotient, much of which comes from the thoughts racing through Whitacre's mind.
The Informant! is heavy with Damon's voiceovers, as we're privy to his character's inner thoughts -- most of which are non sequiturs that illustrate how little Whitacre is paying attention to what those around him are saying or doing (his inner monologue involving polar bears is knockdown hilarious).
Adding to the mirth is a bouncy score by veteran Marvin Hamlisch, which never provides us with the musical cues we might expect. In fact, given the current state of the nation, with its stories of greedy banks and fat-cat CEOs bleeding average Americans dry, tackling this story of corporate malfeasance with all comic cylinders firing might have been the only palatable way to present such an otherwise downbeat tale. Otherwise, if we weren't busy laughing, we'd be busy crying.
CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS
A pleasant surprise, the animated Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs skewers more closely toward the quality exhibited in films produced by Pixar and Studio Ghibli than those produced by, well, almost everyone else. Missing are the pushy pop culture references that continue to hopelessly date the likes of the Shrek series, the unseemly visual schemes that turn such efforts as Delgo and Battle for Terra into eyesores, and the scatological humor that runs rampant in the majority of today's family features. By my count, there's only one crude gag in Cloudy, a mere misdemeanor considering the imagination driving the rest of the film. Although it's based on a children's book (by Judi and Ron Barrett), Cloudy is one of those equal-opportunity exercises that provides as much merriment for adults as for kids. After all, it's the grownups who are sure to get a chuckle out of a voice cast diverse enough to include Bruce Campbell, James Caan and Mr. T, it's the grownups who will pick up on the movie's gentle ecological themes. As for the rest, the adults will feel like kids when bombarded by the film's freewheeling innovations and bright color schemes -- all made even more irresistible in 3-D. The film's central character is Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), a gangly inventor living in a small town exclusively dependent on its sardine trade. When the rest of the world collectively deems sardines to be yukky and not worthy of consumption, the town suffers, and it's up to Flint to save it. The young man's past inventions (such as spray-on shoes) were all flawed and never caught on, but his latest contraption -- a device that turns water into food -- seems to be a winner. After its unceremonious launch into the heavens, the machine pours down all sorts of cuisine -- hamburgers, pancakes, ice cream, you name it -- on a regular basis. Flint becomes the town's savior, earns the grudging respect of a tough cop (Mr. T), and even lands a romance with a brainy weathergirl (Anna Faris). But he has yet to receive the approval of his father (Caan), a meat-and-taters kind of guy, and when the unctuous Mayor Shelbourne (Campbell, portraying the toon version of Murray Hamilton's opportunistic mayor in Jaws) talks Flint into pushing his invention to its extreme for the sake of the community (and for the sake of Flint's newfound popularity), the well-meaning scientist acts in a manner that promises stormy weather ahead.
The visual design of Cloudy is wondrous: There's something inherently amusing in seeing a castle built out of gelatin or a street lined with ice cream rather than snow, and the movie repeatedly offers up these gastronomical delights. Yet underlying the frivolity is a warning about our nation's gluttonous and wasteful ways (best exemplified by the mountain of rotting, unwanted food barely being kept from pouring into the town by a single wall), a message certainly to be lost on children (who'll wish they had their own candy-dispensing machine hovering above their homes) but relevant to environmentally aware adults. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is an entertaining ride, but it doesn't possess the lasting power of, say, this summer's Up or any of the other top-tier animated features that stick with us for the long haul. It's more comfortable in the company of Kung Fu Panda and Monster House: Like those worthy animated features, this one shows up, gets the job done, and leaves us feeling satisfactorily full.