The Informant!

Dir: Steven Soderbergh

Rating: 2.0/5.0

Warner Bros.

108 Minutes

Steven Soderbergh must have been a hyperactive child, bouncing from kickball, to the jungle gym to the swing set, pausing only when an idea, brilliant or not so brilliant, filled his busy little brain. Don’t forget this is the man who jumped from creating masterpieces in cool such as The Limey and Out of Sight to lesser films that just think they’re cool like the Ocean’s series or his recent noir homage The Good German. Soderbergh’s work runs the gamut from big budget “issues” films like Traffic and Erin Brockovich to experiments like Bubble and Full Frontal.

In his latest film, Soderbergh is back in Brockovich territory with The Informant!, a story of corporate trickery, insider trader and a whistle-blower who can’t quite decide which side he’s playing for. That man would be Mark Whitacre (played by a mustachioed, porked-up Matt Damon), an executive at ADM, a corporation looking to corner the market on processed corn syrup. As Whitacre becomes more and more entwined with the FBI, we slowly learn he may not be telling the whole truth.

We’ve seen films about con artists before, but Soderbergh attempts to structure this mostly true tale into a comedy. But as the puzzle unravels, the sickening feeling we’ve seen this somewhere before becomes more and more overwhelming. Oh right! Spielberg attempted (much more successfully) the same type of thing with Catch Me If You Can. Let’s keep in mind Spielberg is not a very subtle director, yet Catch Me seems like an art film compared to the straight-to-video feel of The Informant!

Though the subject matter here is grave (a corporation trying to fix prices on lysine), Soderbergh attempts to make The Informant! into a comedy. Whitacre is actually a pathological liar that may suffer from bi-polarism but before we learn about his condition, Soderbergh plays his random inner monologues for laughs. So what exactly are we laughing at here? A deranged individual who is too stupid to realize self-preservation? Soderbergh does skewer the corporate culture of greed, yet it’s through the perception of a very sick man.

The script doesn’t even come from a comedic source. Rather it is from the book Informant by Kurt Eichenwald, an expose about an executive at Archer Daniels Midland who exposed fraud in the 1990s but was arrested as well. But rather than play Whitacre as a helpless victim of circumstance, Soderbergh opts to make him a lying jackass who is just too dumb to save his own hide.

Let’s not split too many hairs. A lot of The Informant! is funny, especially when Whitacre agrees to go undercover for the FBI, fashioning himself as Agent 0014 (“twice as smart as 007”). But then the film just goes on and on in a never ending stream of double-crossing, back peddling and confusion. By the time it limps to its downer ending, The Informant! has lost all its steam. But rather than feel sorrow for Whitacre, like we do for the pathetic Stephen Glass in Shattered Glass, Soderbergh has already sacrificed this very real condition up to the gods of comedy.

Soderbergh also needs to let someone else do his camerawork. Working under the name Peter Andrews, Soderbergh’s cinematography is lazy and boring as he tries to go for realistic light and angles; he shoots the film like a documentary and not a comedy. The film’s one saving grace is Damon who plays a tightly coiled character ready to unload. Much like his Tom Ripley, Damon’s Whitacre is tinderbox about to incinerate. But unlike Anthony Minghella who allowed us to see Ripley’s inner workings, Soderbergh keeps us outside of Whitacre’s pathology until the very end, clueing us in with ridiculous inner thoughts. The good news is we won’t have to wait much longer for another Soderbergh film as he puts out two to three a year and The Informant! will fade away as one of his lesser works.

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