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The Informant!, Soderbergh's Latest Inside Joke

The Informant! is a Steven Soderbergh corporate caper based on a book called The Informant. The added exclamation point tells you everything — this movie is really fun! And wacky! Just like Matt Damon’s poofy hair!

Actually, The Informant! is a comedy catastrophe. Picture Catch Me If You Can with a slimy little weasel instead of a charming rogue, and you’re halfway there.

Damon brings maximum goofiness to his portrayal of Mark Whitacre, a high-ranking Archer Daniels Midland executive who in the early 1990s began telling first his superiors and then the local FBI in Decatur, Illinois, that he had gotten himself entangled in an international illegal scheme. The details change each time he tells the story. At first, Whitacre seems to argue that a Japanese business is offering bribes to ADM; later he says that ADM itself is orchestrating a price-fixing scheme. He agrees to have his home phone tapped and even to wear a surveillance wire.

The movie is written as a tongue-in-cheek thriller, albeit a confusing and directionless one, but Soderbergh — the Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven director — is back in his go-to-hell art-film mode (his last two pictures were the interminable Che and the throwaway The Girlfriend Experience).

This means Soderbergh isn’t trying to actually entertain the audience. The supposed laughs on offer are pretty much entirely in the overwrought score, the chintzy costuming, Damon’s performance, and (primarily) Soderbergh’s head. He imagines that punctuating virtually every scene with bursts of retro ain’t-that-a-gas music from composer Marvin Hamlisch and allowing (or even ordering!) Damon to play the part with stars in his eyes and the vocal intonations of an overeager high school freshman running for class president will make the audience giggle at such lines as “Didn’t these people see The Firm? Everything they did to me, they did to Tom Cruise!” Or (yes, this is essentially the same joke) “It’s like Rising Sun! It’s like the Crichton novel!”

It becomes clear in the first quarter of an hour that Whitacre is a fabulist and that nothing he says is going to add up. Yet most of the movie is spent on making this one point in various ways. Moreover, Soderbergh has not the slightest interest in actually clarifying the technical details of the various criminal cases involved; several ADM executives went to prison, although at times the movie makes it seem like Whitacre is the only one who has done anything wrong. Soderbergh is far too groovy to get into the nitty-gritty, so he tosses out specks of information as carelessly as a teen driver dropping fast-food wrappers out the window as he munches.

The entire movie gambles that we’ll enjoy Whitacre’s company for 108 minutes. We’re meant to find him weirdly fascinating as he keeps up a nonstop interior monologue, delivered by Damon in voiceover. These snippets, obviously fabricated by the screenwriter even though Whitacre is a real person who worked for ADM in the 1990s (and who later served several years in prison for embezzling), are meant to remind us that Whitacre is a flake: “I like my hands,” he declares, out of nowhere. “They’re probably my favorite piece of my body.”

In every frame, you can sense Soderbergh and Damon snickering at this pathetic blowhard and his hopeless taste. He wears inelegant suits, ugly ties, and two-tone hair styled to suggest a bird’s nest-style toupee. He tells us about information he gleaned from in-flight magazines, and boasts, when he fancies himself an undercover agent who is going to bring down ADM and be rewarded with the top spot in the company, that he’s “0014” because he’s twice as smart as 007. The entire film is (digitally) photographed with an aggressive garishness meant to suggest, perhaps, overlit conference rooms or the anonymous grids of large corporate offices.

These are things the filmmakers assume we despise, and simply by presenting corporation men’s lives in quotation marks, as it were, Soderbergh thinks he is fashioning a comedy to an audience of refined artistes and tastemakers who wouldn’t be caught dead working in a classic middle American company that is located (for extra snark value) almost in the middle of America. Two hours of smugness and superiority do not a movie make, though.

Toward the end, as Whitacre attempts to spin yet another preposterous lie, his wife interrupts him: “You need to stop doing this to yourself.” Filmgoers whose patience has run out an hour before this point will be left asking themselves why Soderbergh and Damon feel it’s so vital to exasperate the audience in exactly the same way Whitacre has irritated everyone around him.