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CINEMA: With Friends Like This Who Needs Enemas?

informant_poster1.jpgTHE INFORMANT! (2009, directed by Steven Soderbergh, 108 minutes, U.S.)

JENNIFER’S BODY (2009, directed by Karyn Kusama, 102 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC

In the 20 years since Steven Soderbergh’s debut, his versatility has left him somewhat of an enigma. Over the course of 20 films, you would expect a theme, a driving concern or even a visual vocabulary to emerge. Instead, Soderbergh comes off as an reserved, unbiased observer, poking and prodding whatever idea tickles his curiosity (philosophical sci-fi! Leftist biography! old Hollywood recreations!), yet never giving the sense that he’s emotionally tied to any idea. This is why Soderbergh’s latest film, an off-kilter psychological study of real-life whistle-blower Mark Whitacre, strikes a chord: here the director studies a guy with his own Asperger-like quirks.

Adding pounds of pudge and a dopey mustache, Matt Damon schlubs himself up as Whitacre, a fast-rising employee of agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland. When corporate subterfuge is suspected, the F.B.I. is called in. During the investigation Whitacre drops a bomb on the agents, revealing the ADM has been involved in a world-wide price-fixing scheme involving the soy extract lysine. He offers himself as an undercover spy, secretly recordings hundreds of hours of meetings and laying the groundwork for major indictments against the company.

At the film’s opening we see Whitacre much like the agents do, as a well-meaning but dorky do-gooder, driven by a quaint sense of fair play. Matt Damon really captures the sort of dull plant manager in which you wouldn’t look at twice. As we do study him closer – hearing his stray banal thoughts on everything from neckties to Japanese sexual fetishes – his sociopathic qualities begin to come clear; he’s not actually feeling emotions, instead he is mimicking them. Then Whitacre’s Achilles heel becomes evident: he’s also a pathological liar.

After that early revelation, the film has few surprises, instead the fun comes from a number of awkward scenes where Whitacre is blissfully unaware that everyone knows he is spinning tall tales. Once someone calls him on his lies Whitacre just finds another unsuspecting ear (a lawyer, a journalist) to tell his tales to. Soderbergh has filled out much of the cast with a unusual array of actor/comedians (The Smothers Brothers, Patton Oswalt, Alan Havey) who play their double-takes deliciously straight while the eager-to-please Whitacre begs for their attention with another fat whopper.

The action would almost play as drama if the tone wasn’t eased into light comedy by Marvin Hamlisch’s zingy score, which with its brassy pomp would sound at home in a late 60’s Jame Bond spoof. With his McMansion and his sports cars and his secret taping devices , Whitacre sees himself as Bond-ian (he even takes the code name 0014 because he’s “twice as smart” as Agent 007) while the score’s comic slant hints that the joke is on him. This all makes for an wonderfully odd ride, cruising along in Mark Whitacre ‘s delusional mind, but the trip never feels crowded because he’s hardly there himself.

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Also revealing itself as barely there is the purported talent of screenwriter Diablo Cody, who became a mass-media jennifers_body_poster.jpg“It” girl after penning the script to acclaimed indie hit Juno in 2007. She’s milked her moment of fame well, landing a trash culture-obsessed column in Entertainment Weekly and an appearance with Tori Spelling on the new 90210, but sooner or later she needed to give us another look at her talent and write a follow-up her debut. When a sophomore slumps like this you’re tempted to poke her with a stick to see if she’s still breathing: Cody’s horror spoof Jennifer’s Body is the sort of disaster that lays bare more fatal shortcomings than any aspiring writer could optimistically be expected to overcome.

Marketed as a specifically female horror film, Jennifer’s Body at least has a promising concept with its “my best friend is a succubus” storyline. The main character Needy (subtle, ay?) is used to being in the shadows of her glamor puss pal Jennifer, who rules their rural high school with her suffocating hotness. When a devil worshiping indie rock band (looking like the Jonas Brothers with mascara) comes to town and burns down the local nightspot, Jennifer runs off in their van and almost ends up being their virgin sacrifice. The jokes on them, this girl’s no virgin, she’s wiggled on her back further than they’ve traveled on foot!  She instead transforms into a demonic boy killer, gobbling down the small town’s horny teenage boys as Needy looks on in horror at her friend’s slutty and murderous ways.

Jennifer’s Body is directed by Girl Fight‘s Karyn Kusama but it is Cody’s slang-infected smarmy script that makes the biggest impression. The smart-aleck one-liner’s are here but Transformer‘s Megan Fox doesn’t bring the nasty intelligence Ellen Page displayed when she slung her darts in Juno. I was reminded of super model Cindy Crawford’s performance in the forgotten 1995 thriller Fair Game, a testament to how one can be off-the-charts sexy in still pictures yet nearly unwatchable as a movie actor. Megan Fox may unavoidably rouse the sexual id but there’s something deeply crass and boring about her presence on screen.

Cody has played up her past career as a stripper in her bio and you can feel a sex worker’s deep disdain for the horny men pulled in by Jennifer’s siren call. You can also sense a stripper’s disconnect, as Cody displays no understanding of the emotional drives that inform her characters. In the same unbelievable way Juno could blithely give up her baby, saying it was never hers to begin with, Jennifer runs off to frolic with the demonic band despite seeing dozens of people burned to death in front of her eyes moments before. Maybe she’s been in L.A. too long but Cody seems to have no feel for the way people naturally act. It’s a problem that literally informs every scene of the movie.

Nor can Cody walk this story from beginning to end, adding elements willy-nilly (oh, and Jennifer can fly too!) whenever her script calls for it. There’s enough winking asides to tell you that Cody’s thinks she’s above the horror genre but nary a moment when she gets close to mastering its form. Throughout the snarky insults and mopey teen-ish disgust, Cody’s persona continues to shine though; if the odds of her sustaining a screenwriting career seem slim with this evidence, a career of being famous just for being famous still seems scarily within her reach.

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