That exclamation point in the title of The Informant! goes a long way to signalling what you should expect from Steven Soderbergh’s latest. Where Kurt Eichenwald’s non-fiction book The Informant told the story of Mark Whitacre, whistleblower and embezzler in one of America’s most famous cases of corporate corruption, as a gripping dramatic thriller, The Informant! is something else altogether.
At times closer to a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy than the A Civil Action type film that this could so easily have become, Soderbergh’s latest doesn’t seem to fall into either of the ‘one for him’ or ‘one for the studio’ categories that have been applied to his films of late. Because, while the set up may be purely the latter, and Oscar-bait material with a plum(p) role for Matt Damon, the execution is all the former.
Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a rising star within American food giant ADM, who turns whistleblower to the FBI when he reveals the criminal corruption at the heart of the company. But Soderbergh isn’t really interested in the scandal, that Whitacre uncovered one of the most high profile price-fixing scams in American history.
As Scott Bakula’s earnest FBI agent Brian Shepard declares, “Everyone in this country is a victim of corporate crime by the time they finish breakfast”. But you never really get a sense of how big this is. It’s almost incidental.
The real story here is Damon’s Whitacre and the comical extremes of his delusion (“Do you guys think I’ll be alright at the company?” he asks the FBI while gathering evidence that will put most of his colleagues in prison) and his own cover up and embezzlement.
Rounded, moustached and with a thatched roof head of hair that becomes laughable towards the end, it’s a wonderful role for Damon when set alongside the cold, hard action beats of the Bourne films. Soderbergh and Burns are more interested in Whitacre than the scandal, and so The Informant! foregoes the histrionics of a legal crusade against big, corporate America; instead the film becomes a comedic showcase for Damon’s Whitacre.
With a voiceover that frequently veers off in completely different directions from what we’re seeing on screen, he is, admittedly, a great comedy creation; whether ruminating on his idea for a TV show that seems based on the Roger Moore film The Man Who Haunted Himself, or admiring how nice his hands are, he’s a terrific comedy creation and Damon is clearly having a ball playing him.
And Soderbergh takes Whitacre’s larger than life persona and applies it liberally to the rest of the film. When the FBI finally get the evidence they need to prosecute ADM, what would be the climactic feel good resolution in most mainstream films is turned into an over-the-top comedy highlight, a pantomime slap on the back by a lawyer, and cheesy smiles all round.
Yet Soderbergh’s masterstroke in making the film an out-and-out comedy is also his undoing. There’s little dramatic tension here, and while that barely matters in the film’s brisk first hours when Whitacre’s charm is so, well, charming, it tells in the last hour.
There are countless tricks on show, most seemingly a deliberate attempt to appear at odds with what we’re seeing, just as behind Whitacre’s polished facade is a man full of half truths and exagerrations.
Marvin Hamlisch’s overpoweringly jazzy and playful score is so reminiscent of The Sting that it seems at odds with what we’re seeing. And Soderbergh surrounds Damon with an eclectic cast of supporting players to add to the off-beat feel, mostly comedians playing it straight – Joel McHale (from TV’s The Soup), Patton Oswalt, Tony Hale from Arrested Development. Even Biff from Back To The Future gets in on the act.
It’s a fantastically well made film, but at its heart it’s missing someone you can really root for. Mark Whitacre is a fascinating character, and Damon’s performance is enough to make The Informant! a solid piece of entertainment. That it’s nothing more, however, is a bit of a disappointment.