For the past decade or so, director Steven Soderbergh has employed his switch-hitting technique. His small-scale, indie-ish, idiosyncratic and even head-scratching films (Che, The Bubble) have been interspersed with pure-pop, big-budget entertainment designed to make the box office jingle (Oceans 11-13).
His latest, The Informant!, aims for the latter category, and it is wholly enjoyable. Yet, I couldn't help noting as I watched it that, like a swimmer fighting against the current, the film would drift toward oddity. Then, it would right itself and carry on, only to drift again.
But before I digress as well, let me set the scene:
The Informant! takes us on the strange journey of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a go-getter executive turned whistle-blower turned FBI informant turned ... well, the story does get pretty twisted in its second half. It's a white-collar comedy, based on actual events. (Scott Z. Burns' script is adapted from Kurt Eichenwald's 2000 eponymous book.)
Whitacre is a vice president at Archer Daniel Midlands Company, the mega-huge agri-business company based in Decatur, Ill., that among other things processes crops into food ingredients. ADM's familiar corporate slogan -- "supermarket to the world" -- makes it sound like a benevolent cornucopia. But in 1992, when our story begins, less-noble corporate plays were afoot: ADM was in cahoots with several global competitors to fix the price of lysine, an amino acid.
I can almost hear you yawning. But the beige drone of corporate malfeasance is the matte background upon which Soderbergh drops the colorful Whitacre, who at his wife's urging spills the beans to the FBI. He becomes a reluctant, then over-eager informant -- jetting to boardroom meetings to secretly tape price-fixing agreements. It's juicy enough for the Department of Justice to get on board. Everything looks set for a career-making smackdown of both ADM and the kind of hard-to-trace crime that hurts everybody. (At one point, Whitacre describes the price-fixing of key food additives as akin to "holding up every grocery store in the world.")
Then, things go -- to borrow a food metaphor -- pear-shaped, and Whitacre's white hat starts to show some dirt.
The film tosses a few warning flags about Whitacre early on. There are his manic off-on-off interest in helping the FBI; his occasional penchant for the dramatic; and his rambling thoughts. Soderbergh frequently turns down the scene's natural sounds, so all we hear is Whitacre's musings from inside his head. Topics include inexpensive neckties, indoor swimming pools and the multiple definitions of the word "toro."
Even before he aligns with the FBI, these monologues depict Whitacre easily toggling between an exterior of brisk efficiency and an interior life that is a stream of idle, self-important banalities; he is both in control and off in the clouds. Becoming an informant adds a third version of Whitacre (a man he dubs "Double-Oh Fourteen," or twice as good as James Bond). Once you start disassembling and re-arranging yourself, it's hard to stop -- or to keep track.
The film is not as wacky as the previews or poster would have you believe. The factual meat of this film is serious and worth revisiting (think A Civil Action, or Soderbergh's own Erin Brockovich). And that's so even if Soderbergh isn't betting his chips on the viewer's righteous indignation about corporate shenanigans.
He's after more elusive provocation, asking us to re-examine one set of "facts" -- ADM is doing some very bad things -- through a series of increasingly murky windows created by Whitacre's involvement. How much dirt does it take to obscure the long view?
In real life, unreliable narrators and tainted witnesses can be nightmarish stumbling blocks for justice-seekers, but Soderbergh makes such dilemmas the zippiest part of the film. (There's a running gag about a number that should outrage us, but
instead gets some of the film's best-earned laughs.)
It's as if Soderbergh's approach is as bifurcated as Whitacre, simultaneously unspooling two stories: a straightforward docu-narrative about actual events, and a winky black comedy starring an amusingly exaggerated "hero." (See also his choice of scenery: the flatly lit sterile offices and motel rooms repeatedly interrupted by sumptuous location shooting.)
It worked for me, perhaps because I'm a fan of both those sorts of films, so why not a breezy mash-up? We're cued from the start to expect off-beat levity: the absurd exclamation point in the film's title; and the opening disclaimer that some characters and dialogue have been altered, followed by the snarky "so there."
Certainly, the actors are playing the amusing side of the fence. Damon portrays the funniest bland guy you'd ever be trapped at an airport lounge with. Scott Bakula is his perfect foil, as an FBI agent with all the sad-eyed blind loyalty of a bloodhound. Marvin Hamlisch adds a lively score that bounces between crime jazz, light comedy and melodrama, again with tongue firmly in cheek.
No doubt, the global corporate behemoths need a good public smacking-around, and if there's crime buried deep in their ledgers, we should hear about it. But I'm with Soderbergh on this one: Sometimes we just need a laugh or two, instead of another grim dose of medicine.
Starts Fri., Sept. 25.