THE INFORMANT! (15) **** DIRECTED BY: STEVEN SODERBERGH STARRING: MATT DAMON, SCOTT BAKULA, MELANIE LYNSKEY
PUNCTUATING his wacky comedic credentials with that titular exclamation mark, Steven Soderbergh puts a wry, sly spin on the kind of corporate cover-up he explored in more conventional fashion with Erin Brockovich by blowing the whistle on a real-life whistle-blower. Said snitch is one Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a successful, well-paid biochemist for a leading food-processing conglomerate who set out in the early 1990s to expose the shady practices of his employers by working with the FBI to implicate them in a global conspiracy to fix the price of lysine – a central additive in commercial corn production.
What the FBI didn't realise, though, was that their star witness wasn't necessarily all he appeared to be. In fact, he was a bit of a crackpot fantasist who'd read too many John Grisham and Michael Crichton novels and fancied himself as a secret agent, even giving himself the codename 0014 because he thought that made him "twice as smart as James Bond".
Soderbergh tips us off early to Whitacre's potential problem with reality, with the arch, retro title cards and Marvin Hamlisch's incongruous, spoof spy movie score (which often sounds unsettlingly like the theme for Terry and June).
There's also Matt Damon's fabulously unflattering appearance. With his rubbish 'tache, premature middle-aged spread and animal-like hairpiece, he's the Bizarro Jason Bourne, a super-spy in his own mind given a chance to play espionage games for real.
It's a wonderfully oddball performance from Damon. Deceptively bland, his banal observations, amusingly trite narration and ingratiating earnestness reward attentive viewers with minute insights into a steadily fracturing mind. That said, Soderbergh muddies the waters and keeps his protagonist just distant enough so we can never really get a handle on him. From the brazen upfront acknowledgment that some names and details have been changed, to the fact that Whitacre's employers were actually involved in criminal activity, there's a constant blurring of truth and fiction that reflects its protagonist's own thought process.
Such a formalistic approach to the story is typical of Soderbergh, who increasingly seems intent on finding new ways to push at the boundaries of mainstream and art-house cinema, interrogating what both can do.
After the rigorous formalism of his epic biopic Che (all four and a bit hours of it), this is Soderbergh having fun with his craft again – and inviting us to join in the laughs.
THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE (15)
DIRECTED BY: RMI BEZANON
STARRING: JACQUES GAMBLIN, ZABOU BREITMAN, DBORAH FRANOIS, MARC-ANDR GRONDIN
OVER-STYLISED and undernourished, French director Rmi Bezanon relies a little too heavily on clichd cinematic catastrophes (car accidents on rainy evenings, heavily telegraphed terminal illnesses, unwanted pregnancies…) to provide dramatic momentum to what is at heart a rather unspectacular saga of familial discord and reconciliation.
Though initially disguising its conventionality with a nifty flash-backing, decades-spanning structure that splits the interweaving fates of the five members of the Duval family (mum, dad, high-achieving eldest son Albert, slacker middle child Raph and grungy little sis Fleur) into five pivotal days from their pasts, by the time it actually brings us up to speed with their lives, interest has already evaporated.
Bezanon clearly has some talent to burn, but he also has an unerring habit of sabotaging anything vaguely insightful with jarring tonal shifts and clumsy cultural references. Raph (Marc-Andr Grondin) participating in an air guitar competition and extolling the virtues of Angus Young is bad enough; the scene where Fleur mourns Kurt Cobain, or the one in which a doctor waxes lyrical about Apocalypse Now, almost reach Richard Curtis levels of knuckle-gnawing awfulness.
SOUTHERN SOFTIES (U)
DIRECTED BY: GRAHAM FELLOWS
IF YOU'RE not a devoted fan of John Shuttleworth, the self-deprecating, Sheffield-based, organ-playing alter-ego of writer/director/performer Graham Fellows, it's probably safe to say this spoof documentary following the aspiring singer's quest to find out if people from the South are softer than people from the North will outwear its welcome pretty quickly. Mostly shot on a camcorder and deliberately shambolic in style, it's a slice of lo-fi, DIY whimsy, the enjoyment of which depends very much on how amusing you find the thought of Shuttleworth applying his gentle, end-of-the- pier/working men's club outlook on life to the pleasantly bemused inhabitants of the Channel islands.
A plot of sorts emerges when slightly pervy neighbour/agent/cameraman Ken Worthington disappears and a somewhat more professional film crew arrives to help, but mostly attention remains focused on mining humour from everyday scenarios and encounters with the locals. It's patchy if inoffensive stuff.