The Informant (sorry, THE INFORMANT!) is one of those films that demands special punctuation in its title, much like Inglourious Basterds or Menace II Society. The title needs to be shouted. It’s intended to make you excited and to prepare you for some madcap shenanigans. Sadly, there is little hiding behind that exclamation mark that warrants zany punctuation; instead, just the tragic true story of whistleblower/pathological liar Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon). Oh, there are funny moments in the film. And director Steven Soderbergh works hard to make the story seem as screwball as its title. But much like that unnecessary exclamation mark (and come to think of it, the titular fraudster himself), it is all just a smokescreen for a film that isn’t nearly as fun or funny as you would hope.
Biochemist Mark Whitacre was President of the BioProducts Division at Archer Daniels Midlands (ADM) between 1989 and 1995. I’ll explain this as best I can (remembering that I am not actually a biochemist). ADM is responsible for processing certain things into end products such as food and beverages. Now these things (this is a scientific term of course) include those ingredients you read on the side of packages that don’t sound all that appealing. ADM was involved in an international price fixing conspiracy that Whitacre eventually (and somewhat accidentally) brought to the attention of the FBI. Under the direction of agents Shepherd (Scott Bakula) and Herndon (Joel McHale), Whitacre become the highest-level whistleblower in U.S. corporate history. He also suffered from delusions of grandeur and committed several acts of downright stupidity in the middle of the investigation.
Matt Damon’s performance here is worth writing home about. He has perhaps one of the most underrated comic sensibilities of all actors working today and he’s perfectly cast as the manic Whitacre. It’s one of the best comedic performances of the year and certainly one of the most layered. I’m not sure that I know who Mark Whitacre is at the end of the film, nor can I be sure why he did the things he did. But Damon convinces us that Whitacre believes his actions to be reasonable, even if they are undeniably ridiculous. Melanie Lynskey is great as Whitacre’s ever-concerned wife Ginger, while Bakula and McHale almost steal the show as his FBI handlers. In fact, can we please get a spin-off movie with just these two characters?
Soderbergh has decided to splurge on some big budget luxuries such as “trained actors” and “lighting” in his latest film (elements that have been missing from his more experimental works). The Informant! ends up being a unique combination of those political thrillers from the 1970’s (Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation comes to mind) and those zippy 1950’s educational videos about the wonders of capitalism. The film’s colour palette saturates the frame like your father’s wedding suit. Marvin Hamlisch’s score also manages to capture a James Bond-esque tone, although I’m talking the 1967 Casino Royale here.
Unfortunately, the film’s screenplay cannot keep up with Soderbergh’s wacky vision. Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (adapting Kurt Eichenwald’s book of the same name, minus exclamation point) seems to give up halfway through the film and decides to just tell the audience what happens to Whitacre, instead of showing us. Without spoiling anything, certain revelations are made about Mark’s time as an informant, which, you would assume severely impede his relationships. However, we never see what effect these revelations have on these relationships, particularly the ones we have spent the past hour learning to care about. It’s as if Burns believes dropping bombs is more interesting than the fallout. It’s the equivalent of watching the first three quarters of an exciting football match and then someone telling you the final score. This does not equal a fulfilling experience.
It’s hard to tell whether or not Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! is an achievement or a failure. Although a lot of thought has clearly gone into the look and feel of the film, the screenplay is half-baked at best. The difficulty in judging the success of The Informant comes down to the low standards with which it seems to hold itself too. The movie posters remind us that the film comes from the director of Oceans 11, 12 and 13, and not Soderbergh’s most acclaimed film Traffic. From a marketing point of view, it makes more sense to associate the film with Soderbergh’s Ocean’s franchise, especially considering that The Informant! similarly features a greater emphasis on aesthetics than emotion.