There are two sides to filmmaker Steven Soderbergh -- the ambitiously artistic one and the calculatedly commercial one. His debut film sex, lies, and videotape and recent digital trial The Girlfriend Experience fall into the former category. Efforts like Ocean's 11 through 13 clearly rest in the latter. And then there's The Informant!, a quirky combination of oddball satire and corporate thriller. Focusing on the story of Mark Whiteacre (Matt Damon), a rising executive in the Archer Daniels Midland agricultural conglomerate who ends up blowing the whistle on rampant price fixing going on in the food additive business, Soderbergh stretches the boundaries of credibility while creating a movie that mocks most of the tenets of the genres he's working in. Article continues below
With a conscience overburdened with bad thoughts (and deeds), Whitacre uses a chance encounter with FBI agents Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Herndon (Joel McHale) as a way of "coming clean." He implicates his employer, his bosses, and their international business partners in a massive scheme to keep the price of lysine, and other crop-based by-products, at agreed-upon levels. Sensing a major bust in the making, the Feds get Whitacre to wire up, recording over 200 condemning tapes of the wrongful wheeling and dealing before finally arresting the main participants three years later. In the meantime, Whitacre has concocted an elaborate fantasy world (fueled by his own bi-polar disorder) where he is in partnership with the government, using the case as a means of taking over ADM. When his own misdeeds derail said strategy, he is forced to confront a career filled with falsehoods and fabrications.
The Informant! is like a genial little joke that takes forever setting up before delivering one whooper of a punchline -- and then it really goes insane. Indeed, director Soderbergh, working from a script by Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum) stages the first half of the film in such a dry, droll manner that when the ridiculous revelations about Whitacre's own culpability come to light, we're not sure whether to laugh or simply scratch our heads. The whole narrative -- based on a real and far more serious set of circumstances -- is played like an accidental farce, Damon doing his best likeable dingbat routine while the rest of the cast tries a smart aleck lampoon of All the President's Men. Imagine Michael Mann's Insider crafted instead by an Into the Night-era John Landis and you start to get the idea.
In fact, that mid career crisis move for the Animal House auteur is a good analogy for what's happening here. Soderbergh, clearly capable of doing anything he wants behind the camera, stocks his story with more unusual cameos (Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins, The Smothers Brothers) and eccentric riffs (Marvin Hamilisch's lounge lizard score), all to the detriment of his main focus. The whole ADM/price fixing facet of Whitacre's tale is just as intriguing as the man's own personal demons, and yet Soderbergh can't seem to settle on how best to present them both. The Informant! therefore becomes bifurcated, handling the big picture conspiracy first before almost completely abandoning it for more Damon as dolt outrageous. Luckily, our lead is so capable in the role of the geeky habitual liar that we overlook the occasional lapses.
Still, one senses that The Informant! would have been better had Soderbergh settled on one tone and simply ran with it. The material lends itself to an intense, edge-of-your-seat nailbiter, even with Whitacre's peculiarity taken into consideration. There is also a world of comic possibilities in the deluded executive who uses one crime to cover another. Had he gone either way totally, The Informant! could have been a smash. As it stands, it's just another of Soderbergh's uneven experiments.