Sunday, October 25, 2009

Man on Film: Extract and The Informant!

This (along with many other posts) is long overdue. It has been three weeks since I saw The Informant! It's been even longer since I went to Extract.

To me, they're linked by the fact that they're autumn comedies featuring my boys, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

More than that, though, they are both comedies about seemingly normal people with normal jobs (unlike just about every comedy that comes out these days in which the characters have no discernible debt of time owed to anything that resembles a job). Each film spends a considerable amount of time in the workplace. Each film's protagonist is largely defined by his job.

In Mike Judge's latest film, Extract, he returns from the realm of the farcical satire that his dystopic Idiocracy occupied and elects to mine the world of the regular day-to-day life for his laughs. Obviously, that territory has proven to yield his most successful work (King of the Hill and Office Space), and for the most part it bears fruit here.

As has been the case in all of his post-"Beavis and Butthead" fare, the protagonist in our tale is the straight man while the color is added in heavy doses by the supporting cast. While much of the cast is great, I can gladly say that it is Ben Affleck who stands head and shoulders above the rest. My having vocally stood by (ask just about anyone I know how I feel about Ben Affleck, and they can tell you without hesitation that I am an unabashed fan) as his career nearly ran off the tracks following a string of commercial and critical flops seems to have paid off in the past few years. Following his Golden Globe nominated turn as George Reeve in Hollywoodland, he adapted and directed the outstanding Dennis Lehane tale Gone Baby Gone. Moving on from the solid Kevin MacDonald film, State of Play, America is now being treated to a brilliant comedic turn as Joel's (Jason Bateman) best friend, Dean. As the oft-stoned bartender who is stuck in his early 20s, Affleck plays the amiable dim-bulb and more-often-than-not bad influence to the everyman. Picture a 21st-century Eddie Haskell, all grown up.

Affleck aside, Judge & Co. elect to take a more character-driven approach here. This is not a joke-propelled comedy. At no point is it really trying to be, and on the comedic landscape of recent years, that stands out as being a unique trait. So while Extract does not deliver a laugh-a-minute, that was never its intent.

If the film does have a shortcoming, it is that we find Jason Bateman once again playing the repressed husband--a role he seems* to play every time out. It's not that he doesn't do it well; it's just that he's done it before--often.

*I use the word 'seems' here because I do recognize that he has played roles out of that character mold. Unfortunately, those are in bit parts in ensemble pieces like Smokin' Aces or State of Play. Sure, he was great there, especially as the lecherous lawyer in Smokin' Aces, but they are roles that for the most part are forgotten, which is exactly what I did until I stopped to think about what movies Jason Bateman has been in recently.

That being said, the film works for the most part, and it can be refreshing to see a comedy that isn't going to sacrifice narrative elements such as nuance and character development for a set laugh-to-minute ratio.

Now, while the new autumnal comedy featuring Ben Affleck was good if not great, the Matt Damon star-vehicle The Informant! was outstanding. While Steven Soderbergh has certainly been willing to push filmic boundaries with projects like Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience, and his two-part Che bio-pics, one could certainly argue that he has been at his most enjoyable in films like Out of Sight or the Ocean's series. Sure, those films aren't what one would typify as weighty (read: they're not Solaris...), but I'll be damned if Out of Sight isn't one of the smartest and sexiest crime flicks in ages.

With The Informant!, Soderbergh has found potential drama that he can skew towards a comedic tone. Luckily for everyone, he cast the brilliant Matt Damon in the lead role of Mark Whitacre. The Informant! is a comedy of farcical corporate collusion, espionage, and intrigue with the larger-than-life Mark Whitacre at its center. With Whitacre as what we presume to be our hero, Damon is forced to inhabit the skin of a man who at various points is amiable and dislikeable, naive and cunning, confident and paranoid. The schizophrenia of Whitacre, while still occurring within the bounds of a comedy, call for an impressive range of emotion from its star, especially when that star is expected to maintain a tone that is conducive to a lighter comedy.

Damon delivers on all counts.

If the movie began and ended with Damon (and I suppose in certain regards it could), then no further words would need to be spent here. It doesn't, though.

From the onset of the film, there is another star: Marvin Hamlisch. Starting out underneath the brilliant titles, the score aptly sets the tone of a late-60s/early-70s political farce. Sure, the film is set a good 15 years later than that, but the setting isn't as important as what the subject matter recalls. It hearkens back to a film of an earlier era. Just like the film's throw-back protagonist*, the Hamlisch score does its part in setting the thematic elements of the film against the backdrop of what essentially boils down to a confidence film (albeit within the confines of an entirely different world, eschewing the standard setting of the insanely well-to-do for the contemporized corporate culture and the FBI), succeeding where its predecessor in genre exercise Catch Me If You Can falls short.

*We are, as the audience, rooting for him, aren't we?... While I may be stretching the bounds of what would generally fall under the umbrella of the protagonist, I think it's still applicable here.

As always, Soderbergh's direction is unassailable. The film looks great. I'd never expect anything less, especially after the visually arresting string of films he put together starting with Out of Sight and continuing on through The Limey, Erin Brockovich*, and Traffic.

*It is not without a generous share of begrudging (begrudgment? begrudgery?) that I allow for Erin Brockovich to stand as anything less than a bad film. It does look great--maybe I'm a whore for grainy, bleached-out films--but it is saddled with Julia Roberts as its star. Am I wrong or is she just a less attractive Helen Hunt**? Argh. I cannot stand the 'acting' of Julia Roberts.

**While at the Broken Lizard show at the Paramount Theater last week, they made a Helen Hunt joke and both Luke Perry's Very Distant Cousin and The Special Lady Friend were tickled pink because they somehow manage to end up complaining about Helen Hunt--usually about how she is always talking too loudly--every time they're together. The Helen Hunt knock did not go unappreciated, guys.

In supporting roles, Joel McHale, Clancy Brown, Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures), and Scott Bakula are great, The Bakula especially. But we all know how I feel about Bakula*... As the person who is perhaps most spurned by Whitacre's shenanigans, Bakula probably draws the most sympathy of all characters in the film. It is hard not to feel for him, however, because he is just so damn likeable.

*All right, is it just me, or does "Men of a Certain Age" look kind of good? I know it will be on TNT, and I am hard-pressed to think of a single TNT-show that has been even remotely enticing. Can The Bakula bring that network to the promised land? Only time will tell.

Now, I have not made mention of what probably makes the film stand out most: its voice-over narration from the standpoint of Mark Whitacre. With homespun observations like
Polar bears cover their noses before they pounce on a seal. How do polar bears know their noses are black? Did they look in the water one day, see their reflection and say, "Man, I'd be invisible if it wasn't for that thing."
the viewer gets a unique insight into the mental machinations of their slightly unhinged leading man. His voice-overs often approach a Larry Davidian (no relation to Branch) realm. Needless to say, this is a welcome ingredient.

In all, the film is great. It manages to be fun while continually revealing that a truth isn't quite what we thought it to be. It strikes a refreshing tone while detailing the uncovering of deeply disturbing corporate collusion and price-fixing. It is marked by spot-on performances and is lucky enough to be drawing from a too-good-to-be-true true story. Where its counterpart in this write-up may not deliver the laughs in droves, I found myself cracking up often in The Informant! It delivers on nearly every count and was one of the most pleasant surprises of this movie-going year.

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