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!"