The Informant! (2009, Steven Soderbergh)
Steven Soderbergh’s quite bizarre fact-based corporate farce The Informant! stars a nearly unrecognizable Matt Damon as infamous ADM exec Mark Whitacre, a man whose unusual trajectory from company bigwig to whistle-blower (of the lysine price fixing scandal) to convicted felon bears a bit of digression. After making a reputation as one of the most cooperative FBI informants of corporate crime in history, Whitacre was discovered embezzling millions of dollars through forgery and served a harsher sentence in federal prison than the executives he’d helped convict. The subject of a book and an episode of This American Life, Whitacre’s story is an intriguing bit of Americana. Someone could make a hell of a movie out of it, along the lines of Melvin and Howard, something that could really get at the heart of a well-meaning eccentric or even a calculated one. Soderbergh’s hands seem like good ones for this idea, and to some extent they are — this is an entertaining and memorable picture — but the big lingering question is, why did he attempt to play it as a quirk-centric comedy? Awash in garish surrealism and Damon’s outsized sense of his character’s alternating squareness and instability, the film runs on a kind of vaguely condescending humor that makes us laugh at things that the story in and of itself invites us to take seriously: white-collar crime, personality disorders, conspiratorial tit for tat, and even the infrastructures of American business in general. All the way through, the film can’t wipe the smirk off its face. Instead of facing up to its own implications, it slaps a 40 Year Old Virgin poster into theater lobbies with a tagline about Whitacre being a “tattle tale.”
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with using a story like this as a basis for satire, and it must be said that Damon, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns do come up with a perfectly vivid character study here, Damon’s unreliable narration of nonsequiturs growing ever more disconnected, his own fixation on Crichton novels and strange trivia as believable as any element of his unlikely plight. But satire needs more than just the coloring of strange but serious and actual events with a brush of Kids in the Hall absurdity leading to nothing but itself. Not that either Whitacre or the price-fixing thieves depicted throughout the film really warrant much sympathy, but it should be the film’s job to make us understand a bit, to get inside their heads a little more than this weirdly distant “look at all these idiots” project allows, as if our only reaction to or attempt at understanding the darker side of capitalism is to point and giggle at people’s mustaches and strange mannerisms. The movie’s more Coens than Demme in this regard, for sure; the Coens straightened out this same year with the knowing and thought-provoking A Serious Man. Many critics slammed the latter film for creating characters just to break them down and humiliate them. One wonders what makes that less noble than doing the same thing, as Burns and Soderbergh do here, to people who actually exist.
As pure fluffy fun, though, the movie succeeds, not least because of its wonderfully detailed rendering of a time that has yet to be explored much in American period films: the early 1990s, the rumblings of the personal computer’s hijack of the culture, the land of just a little more mustiness and old-world sensibility remaining from years longer gone now. When I watched the first fifteen minutes of The Informant!, with the long disorienting shots of offices and desks and cubicles recalling The Apartment, I felt like I was visiting my dad’s engineering firm in 1992. It’s quite vivid, but then the story seems ridiculously mismatched, everything slightly off-kilter — perhaps the intention, if we’re to believe (and we must, for it’s in the credits) that Soderbergh actually hired Marvin Hamlisch to write the score for his corporate greed movie. We end up with a movie that looks like Designing Women and sounds like a Hanna Barbera cartoon.
The frustration comes neither from the story itself nor from the farcical texture; on their own, either of these things could make for a fine movie. They just can’t gel. With a less obsessively ironic portrait of Whitacre, this might have been a good project for Billy Ray of Shattered Glass and Breach, both tales of infamous liars whose actions become in some small form illuminating, worthy of empathy if not forgiveness; Ray could also have done something with the sociopolitical element Soderbergh completely sidesteps, drawing few if any lines to how something like the lysine scandal might have parallels to insider trading and the bailout era. The Informant!‘s universe is a curiously myopic one, even as it trots the globe and spans the better part of a decade.
And of course, the world Soderbergh creates here is appealing enough that you could delight to just staying in it for a time and looking around. The film is orange-tinged and horrendously ugly, but in a fascinatingly evocative sense — the details go far beyond mere cars and hairstyles into lifestyle and attitude. It’s a pity that the script is so inward-looking and minimalistic it can’t offer any sense of the world outside its tiny landscape. A reference to The Firm is the best it can do.
Soderbergh, as many times before, fills the screen with fabulous character actors, some of them rarely seen in movies nowadays: Thomas F. Wilson shows up, as do Scott Bakula, Frank Welker (!), Patton Oswalt, both Smothers brothers and the still underrated Melanie Lynskey. But as with his unconscious inability to use his atmosphere for all it’s worth, he essentially wastes these actors in brief, one-note roles so that more of Damon’s admittedly hilarious monologues can fill our time. (Lynskey in particular gets a horrifically underwritten part as Whitacre’s blandly, blindly supportive wife.) That’s the crux of it all, I suppose. The Informant! is so full of things I love to see in movies — they’re all just fleeting and mismatched, to the point that I can simultaneously say I liked it and it infuriated me.