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The Oscar races are continuing to shake out and I think we generally know who is in the ballpark for the major awards at this point. This sort of winnowing happens every year for better or for worse. It can be helpful to know that some of your favorites have no shot so as to avoid the frustration on nomination morning. Or it can keep hopes alive so that they are cruelly crushed (see: Dark Knight). And it can be a joy to watch as time goes on and your favorite longshot still holds on (see: Richard Jenkins).

A couple developments in the Best Actor race seem notable to me.

The first is that Johnny Depp in Public Enemies has completely fallen off the map. Thank goodness. The film is one of my biggest disappointments of the year. I’ll never know how such a stylish film based on such an interesting character with an interesting life could be so dull. I never thought I’d care so little about seeing the back of Depp’s head blown off. In all it’s not a bad film, but I forgot about it about 30 minutes after leaving the theater.

Not to disparage Depp, but if he was still in the running at this point it would only be on name value alone. And when that happens it drives me nuts. (Of course when I expect the hype to be based on the name and the performance really does deliver it’s always wonderful; see: Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia.)

Completely countering my joy of not having to discuss an underwhelming Michael Mann film here is how ignored The Informant! has become. Matt Damon should be a lock for a nomination and on the inside track for the win. Instead all you hear about him is a possible Supporting nod for Invictus. What a shame. Thank goodness for the Golden Globes (the first/only time I’ll ever say that?) for giving him some proper recognition.

There’s no film from 2009 I’m more excited to see again than The Informant! and it doesn’t even appear to have a DVD release date yet. Steven Soderbergh saw a tale of corporate price collusion, somehow thought it’d make a great zany comedy, and then totally nailed the necessary timing and tone. Quite an accomplishment and, to me, the underachieving box office disappointment of the year.

At this point Damon probably has to fade in the Supporting Actor race and over take either Jeremy Renner or (hopefully!) Morgan Freeman to make it to Oscar night. Needless to say that looks unlikely. At least a Best Score nomination for Marvin Hamlisch seems probable at this point so at least one major piece of this remarkable work could get recognized.

For once our opinions are relevant and timely instead of only thoughtful and brilliant! Three of the Grouches got to take in a preview screening of Steven Soderbergh’s newest film, The Informant!. Matt Damon stars as Mark Whitacre, a manager at agri-conglomerate ADM in the early 90s. He tips the FBI off to his firm’s schemes to fix prices for corn derivatives. But rather than a corporate or crime thriller – this is no Michael Clayton or The FirmThe Informant! is a zany journey through Whitacre’s twisted motivations and off-kilter personality.

The film opens this Friday. Here are our quick thoughts:

Brian

Speaking as someone who knew next to nothing about the ins and outs of the Mark Whitacre story, I loved watching the plot unfold and seeing the case for/against ADM unfold. Damon was hilarious and transformative, and Marvin Hamlisch’s score reminded me of one of my favorite movies, The Sting. Even before the big reveals towards the end, I enjoyed playing the “crazy like a fox?” or “just plain crazy?” game with Damon. Highly recommended.

Jared

Frustratingly obvious and consistently flat, The Informant! knows where the jokes should be, but fails to deliver on any of the punchlines. Perhaps because I knew the story ahead of time, the barely-there plot isn’t as twisty as it thinks it is. But maybe most disappointing is the criminally underused supporting cast. What’s the point in having people like Scott Bakula, Tony Hale, Tom Wilson, and the Smothers Brothers in a comedy if they are all going to play straight?

John

The highest praise I can give The Informant! is that it is spot-on tonally. Rather than playing the plot straight, Soderbergh turns the story into a madcap adventure into one businessman’s twisted mind. The plot is interesting enough but the true strength comes in all the clever little touches and humorous absurdities. I wouldn’t call it laugh-out-loud funny for the most part but it’s always amusing and intensely fun. Damon should get some Best Actor consideration. In short: see this because not only is it terrific but I fear it will need every dollar it can scrounge up. The Oscar season is truly off and running.

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