The Informant!, if nothing else, epitomizes what can most aptly be termed The Soderbergh Dilemma. There are few directors as adept at aesthetic as Steven Soderbergh, for whom I have the utmost respect. I root for his career, for reasons I cannot always explain (though A.O. Scott does, far more eloquently than I can at this particular moment, so totally check it out). I want to like everything he does. And when I don’t… I feel a little guilty.
The problem with The Informant! is the gap between what it is and what it wants to be… and neither one is clear. The film centers around the true story of an executive, Mark Whitacre, employed at Archer Daniels Midland, a huge food conglomerate based in Illinois, who turns whistleblower on the company’s illegal price-fixing tactics. I mean it’s the stuff of great drama. Morally bankrupt corporation (a corporation that makes its riches by facilitating the production of craptastic and grossly unhealthy food products that are designed to benefit government-subsidized agriculture, which is totally overproduced and keeps everybody sick) is found to also be stealing from the public! But our whistleblower is kind of incompetent… and maybe a little delusional. But he’s all there is. And that could have been the stuff of great comedy. Only it’s not. After a promising first act, it feels as though someone simply hit REPEAT, subjecting us to what feels like an endless loop of the same joke for an hour and 48 minutes.
This exhaustiveness is sort of reflective of Soderbergh’s obsession with the problem-solving nature of filmmaking. As an admitted process geek, his work often feels like an experimental exercise designed to resolve a conflict that is entirely his own. It’s not uninteresting. But, as a trusted friend and writer says, ‘interesting’ and ‘good’ are two different things, and The Informant! is no exception. What results is a film that pivots somewhat clumsily between farce and satire, topped with a wild and zany music score that tries just a bit too hard to make us laugh… which we do, but more out of confusion than amusement. That overt insertion –the gag, if you will– is the kind of thing Soderbergh doesn’t need to do. He’s better than that. So what’s it doing here? Is it on purpose? Maybe… but it falls flat, nonetheless.
BUT… as a way of dispelling my guilt, I will say that Matt Damon’s performance has some wonderful moments. Damon has evolved into a truly fine actor, and it’s almost hard to believe that the tubby and utterly unimpressive Whitacre of The Informant!, and the face-breaking, fiercely serious Jason Bourne are played by the same person. Damon’s Whitacre lumbers along with swagger-less banality; his pitiable wide-eyed expression eliciting some genuine laughs, along with Damon’s spot-on voiceovers, which amusingly undercut Whitacre’s misguided view of himself as a white-hat hero. I only wish the story had provided a larger landscape for him.
I wouldn’t exactly call The Informant! a failure. It’s uneven, it’s underdeveloped, it suffers from style fatigue. Yet, despite its flaws, it also joins the ranks as one of several cinematic experiments that manages to endear me to Soderbergh’s trajectory as an artist… again, for reasons I can’t entirely explain. Even amidst my disappointment/guilt, I still await his next project. But not with eager anticipation… just the regular kind.