Steven Soderbergh confuses me!
After you've seen The Informant!, come back and listen to our Spoiler Special discussion:
The Informant! (Warner Bros.), a true-life tale of corporate malfeasance directed by Steven Soderbergh, is a movie with bipolar disorder. It may or may not also be about a man with bipolar disorder—we never fully understand the motivations of Mark Whitacre, the corporate whistle-blower played by Matt Damon. But on the diagnosis of the film itself, I'm solid. Soderbergh whiplashes his viewers between two contrasting mental states that are best described as "jaunty" and "wrenching." Some scenes manage to be jaunty and wrenching at the same time. As Mark spirals further down into legal quagmires and psychic disintegration, the bouncy Marvin Hamlisch score, which sounds like something a '70s cartoon character would bop down the street to, grows ever punchier.
Mark is a biochemist and high-level executive at Archer Daniels Midland, the massive agricultural conglomerate that was the (thinly disguised) villain of 2007's Michael Clayton. As the movie opens, Mark would seem to be the very model of a modern whistle-blower: a square, wholesome, painfully earnest family man who's shocked by his company's possible involvement in an international price-fixing scheme. (Whitacre's story as told here takes some liberties with the source material, a book of the same title—sans exclamation point—by Kurt Eichenwald.) In the course of an FBI investigation into a lesser scandal at ADM, Mark indicates to the agents on the case, Shephard (Scott Bakula) and Herndon (Joel McHale), that he has the inside information to help them hook a bigger fish. Soon Mark is wearing a wire, meeting regularly with the agents, and providing tapes to the FBI to bring down his own company.
But there are signs from early on that something is amiss with Mark. His opening voiceover, at first cheerfully expository, quickly begins to drift into free-association territory ("Pen in German is Kugelschreiber … so many syllables just to say pen"). Later, when Mark describes a Japanese competitor visiting his office in an attempt to extort money from ADM, it seems odd that Soderbergh won't provide a visual flashback; doesn't he know to show and not tell? Then we realize that the encounter with the Japanese man may never have happened. Is ADM really defrauding its stockholders, or is Mark just making shit up?
Before long, it becomes clear that both things are true. Archer Daniels Midland is a corrupt player in the agribusiness industry, and Mark Whitacre is a pathological liar. The process by which the increasingly perplexed FBI agents (and Mark's incredulous lawyer, played by king of the slow burn Tony Hale) figure this all out makes up the murky second act of the movie. The Washington Post's Dan Kois, who discussed The Informant! with me in a Spoiler Special podcast (see link above), mounted a well-argued case that the sense of brain fog that descends during this middle section of the movie was exactly the effect Soderbergh was going for: that the audience's state of confusion was meant to mirror Mark's own. That may be, but if I'm going to descend into a delusional netherworld with a movie's protagonist, I need to emerge from it with some clearer sense of who he is. Soderbergh; his screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns (who also wrote The Bourne Ultimatum); and, to some extent, Damon all seem unclear on just how well we're supposed to know Mark Whitacre or how we should feel about him. For much of the movie he's a bumbling buffoon, his James Bond fantasies providing comical contrast to his unsubtle espionage technique. (Told that a surveillance camera will be hidden in a lamp during the meeting, he goes right up to it and squints curiously into the lens.) Scene by scene, Damon's performance is funny (and there's something delightful about seeing lean, mean Jason Bourne with a paunch and an awful toupee). But, finally, Mark's collection of bizarre behaviors doesn't add up to a character. It's one thing to build a film around someone who's an unknowable cipher (the Philip Seymour Hoffman vehicle Owning Mahoneydid this well); it's something else again to show a guy acting entertainingly nutty for two hours, then try to milk the audience's sympathy with a tight close-up of his face as he finally breaks down.
The Informant! is most engaging if you stop trying to decide whether it's a psychodrama or a spy caper and decide instead to regard it as an exercise in style. Though it's set in the early '90s, the movie (filmed on location in Decatur, Ill.) has a deliberately dingy '70s feel; its muddy brown business suits and cluttered, ill-lit office sets come straight from the world of post-Watergate conspiracy thrillers. There's a meticulous attention to design detail (the vast, chintz-stuffed house that the Whitacres live in was the couple's home in real life) and some fun casting choices. For reasons that aren't clear, Soderbergh decided to cast nearly every small role with a well-known comedian—in addition to Joel McHale as an FBI agent, there are cameo appearances from Patton Oswalt, Tom Wilson, Paul F. Tompkins, and both the Smothers Brothers. Mark's wife, Ginger, an old-school stand-by-your-man type, is expertly played by the wide-eyed and baby-voiced Melanie Lynskey (last seen amateur pole-dancing in Away We Go). Soderbergh's choices are all deliberate, and often interesting. But The Informant! has that old jigsaw-puzzle quality, not uncommon in Soderbergh films, of adding up to less than the sum of its parts.