Steven Soderbergh made an interesting choice in telling the story of Mark Whitacre, the agri-food exec who turned informant and paid a price. Part fraud, part whistleblower, Whitacre is a heady topic for the screen — one that, in most hands, would have been dramatized for maximum fustian, like the kind that blusters through The Insider and Shattered Glass. We learn at once that The Informant! isn’t tracing the usual outlines. (The title’s jazz-hands exclamation point suggests as much.) A saucy disclaimer and a stylized title sequence tell us that Whitacre’s story will be ironized; the mod font over vintage recording devices hint that we’re in for a satire informed by the likes of Smile or Shampoo. Soderbergh’s attempt to approach the topic of corporate crime from a less predictable angle and to insert Whitacre’s story into a surreal framework is admirable, but that’s all to admire in The Informant!, a film that began, probably, as a shining concept on paper but arrives on our screens baffled and still-born.
A new Soderbergh movie, like a new movie by Tarantino, the Coen brothers or the two Andersons, is an event in the landscape of American filmmaking, which is saturated with meaningless efforts shat out by tinkers. Some complain that these “event” directors are gimmicky or repetitive, but at least they’ve forged their own templates rather than settle for generic ones used by 90% of studio filmmakers. Soderbergh’s body of work is uneven, but his output is where most American directors should be, at minimum, if they had creative license and a bit of ingenuity. We mourn his failures because his successes make us optimistic, and because there are so few individualists working in Hollywood boardrooms; though Soderbergh gave up his indie cred years ago when he traded it for budget and A-list leads, he’s had an impact on mainstream American film (we still feel the aftershocks of The Limey‘s Molotov admixture of rogue editing and British New Wave characterization) and he’s retained a lick of his Soderbergh-ness. But that identity is becoming less and less visible, and in The Informant! it’s almost impossible to detect Soderbergh’s signature, which has been upstaged by his mimicry of other people’s methods. An evolving style is to be expected — even demanded — of artists, but that style needs to retain authority as it morphs along. It needs to be bolstered by substance. The importation of homage and allusion, for instance, becomes a sublime mash-up in Tarantino’s films.
In The Informant!, where Soderbergh samples a particular flavor of satire, it’s derivative and tired. People have compared The Informant! to Fargo and insisted that Matt Damon, as Whitacre, is channeling William H. Macy’s dissatisfied and desperate schmo. The comparison may be unfair but it’s persistent, revealing how uninspired Damon’s performance really is — how reliant it is on surface changes rather than inner versatility (a chronic problem in Hollywood Oscar-bait casting). The movie version of Whitacre is just Damon trembling under dad-hair and a few extra pounds. His cheese-eating grin may be dormant (maybe the Bourne jobs knocked it out of him for good), but Damon only registers two modes — quixotism and frustration — throughout the film. It’s a let-down because, though I’ve never been a fan, I acknowledge his intelligence, which comes across in foreign interviews (where he proves articulate and as culturally literate as a Ph.D.). An actor as smart and empathetic as Damon ought to have something to tap into when he tries to play against type in a movie that panders to the smart and empathetic, but he comes up short with the Whitacre material and leaves us dreaming of substitutes who could have done a better job — or who, at the very least, come pre-equipped with the baggage of inadequacy.
Soderbergh wants that gnawing inadequacy and a shot of vanity to characterize his hero in The Informant!. The reference above to Quixote wasn’t cavalier; we’re supposed to see a shade of the old wannabe knight in Whitacre, who insists he’s the “white-hat” in the story, styling himself a Bond or a McDeere, and who does community work on the side. Whitacre is at best a romantic, at worst a naïf. We hear the banalities that tumble through his head as he walks from his car to his office at Archer Daniels Midland, the food additive giant involved in an international price-fixing scandal that shook consumers’ faith in free-market principles. The Marvin Hamlisch score is Whitacre’s state of mind rendered musically: it skips between the generic, Peter Gunn-ish jingles of 80s private-eye dramas and the melodies we attach to Mayberry sitcoms and gameshows. Whitacre isn’t living in the real world, in other words, and his sense of invulnerability is childlike (the hero never goes down in John Grisham novels and James Garner vehicles) so he’s willing to toy with conglomerates and government agencies for his own gain.
Much of what doesn’t work in the film could arguably be what justifies it for some viewers, and that’s fair. Whitacre’s voice-over banalities aren’t as cleverly written as they presume to be, but seen from the perspective of his judges (us), perhaps that’s appropriate. The narrative’s sucking inertia may bore us, but it also has something to say, on the other hand, about corporate and bureaucratic existence; the problem is that such an approach has been done better elsewhere, in more entertaining fashion. Scott Bakula’s exquisitely bland FBI agent isn’t as exquisitely bland as agents in more nuanced satires; Melanie Lynskey seems to have stumbled into the film after missing the entrance for the Coen set one door over; and Clancy Brown, under-used as a corporate suit, might have anchored the piece if he’d been allowed more scenes. The actors are out of synch with each other — some overact and some try for a lighter touch, sometimes both at once. And if the sterile mise-en-scene isn’t as gorgeously sterile as it is in the movies it wants to invoke, that fuzzy, failed edge may play on the idea of spoiled fantasy, which Whitacre embodies. Soderbergh’s choices of cast, score and production design might, for some viewers, work on a thematic level, but those choices don’t cohere — someone forgot to inject an X-factor into the mix to bring it to life and really say what Soderbergh seems to want to say about a deluded man in a reprobate industry.