Steven Soderbergh is our most adventurous, creative and prolific director. Inevitably, his experiments don't always work. Like Atom Egoyan, he's often too smart and restless for "his own good," but it's far better that we cherish our overreachers than demand they embrace the mediocrity of their peers.
The Informant! is a return to the surreal office environment of Soderbergh's little-seen, mostly brilliant Schizopolis and a rebuttal to the inspiring little-guy-beats-the-corporation homilies of his Erin Brockovich. This kooky, fact-based yarn about an Archer Daniels Midland exec who clues in the FBI about a price-fixing scheme he's part of can also be viewed as the flip side of the director's other 2009 release, The Girlfriend Experience. That film is centered on a well-off urban consumer (a high-priced escort) who spends as much time soliciting recession-era economic advice as she does shopping and having sex. The Informant! takes us into the executive suite to introduce us to the puppet masters pulling the strings of our corrupt system.
The joke is that they aren't sleek masters of the universe but complacent Midwestern schlubs with expanding waistlines. The other jokes in the movie I don't quite get, I confess. The story takes place in the early 1990s, but Soderbergh employs a title font and visual scheme borrowed from '70s sitcoms and game shows. Marvin Hamlisch, arguably best known for The Sting (1973), handles the composing duties. The overall air of goofiness, which extends to the exclamation point in the title, carries the film a certain distance but not all the way; at some point, we question who we're laughing with, or at.
The Informant! is told through the eyes and voice of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon, doing a fine job of playing a nonentity who thinks he's smarter than everyone else), and it takes no more than five minutes to realize that he's an unreliable narrator. It's a clever conceit, but the problem with Mark's internal, increasingly deluded commentary is that it gradually makes us stop identifying or empathizing with him. At that point, the film loses its center. And when his self-deception becomes clinical, the laughter catches in our throats.
The most subversive aspect of The Informant! is its offhand treatment of corporate malfeasance. It's a daring strategy to address the Big Issue of economic corruption (corporate and individual) without a single earnest moment -- an approach that could be mistaken for a lack of sincerity -- even in our cynical, post-Madoff world. Tone aside, Soderbergh reveals and then distracts us, through Whitacre's endlessly evolving and hopelessly confusing fabrications, from the basic truth that ADM fixed prices. If there's a moral in this morass, Soderbergh won't deign to point it out.
The Informant! starts out as a hoot, but the fun starts leaching out of Whitacre's escapades around the halfway point. That's clearly by design, but Soderbergh doesn't provide enough emotional depth or social insight to make up the deficit (pun intended). The upshot is that what sticks with us is the movie's style, not its substance. Which makes perfect sense if we recognize The Informant! as a modern-day re-interpretation of "The Price Is Right."
The Informant! opens Friday, September 18, 2009.