Many of Steven Soderbergh’s films in the past eight or nine years can be understood in light of the director asking himself a different hypothetical question: What if I made a slick caper movie cobbled from the emotional remnants of the 1960s? What if I made a stilted, form-driven science-fiction movie cobbled together from the emotional remnants of the 1970s? What if I made a historical drama using period filming techniques cobbled together from the emotional remnants of the 1940s? Etc., etc. Where Soderbergh’s earlier films seemed genuinely interested in examining what it meant to pick a certain storytelling approach while never losing sight of the central narrative, his later work is often willfully unclassifiable, as in the deeply flawed and navel-gazing Ocean’s Twelve or the passion project Che. But with The Informant!, Soderbergh’s finally made a movie that doesn’t know whether it’s a limp comedy or a slack thriller. It just inhabits an uncomfortable and not very interesting middle ground between funny and serious, between full and false intentions, and as a result it’s impossible to get involved or appreciate it on any real level. Based on a true story written up in a book by investigative journalist Kurt Eichenwald (who also gets a producer credit) and adapted by Scott Z. Burns, The Informant! is too wacky to create suspense and too dull to elicit humor. It just sits there, waiting to be admired for its existence by a writer-director who’s forgotten how great he used to be.
The film opens with a playful disclaimer that some of the truth-based events have been dramatized for the screen, ending with a pert, “So there.” It’s a cute moment that implies the film will be sly about its mission and history, but most of what follows never lives up to the simple promise of that small joke. The opening credits — faceless shots of dated surveillance equipment being assembled — are also the first place Soderbergh’s film makes use of a jazzy score by Marvin Hamlisch, whose credits include The Way We Were and The Spy Who Loved Me. This is important because it becomes clear by the end of the film that Soderbergh hasn’t made a dark comedy, or quirky comedy, or any kind of comedy that can be measured with laughter or engagement; he’s just made a curious but mostly dull drama that’s been shellacked with a cheeseball soundtrack.
From the opening, the film begins to unspool in fall of 1992, where Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) works as a vice president for the Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland, an agri-business company with a role in everything from corn to sugar products. He’s an eager guy and a little too nice to feel normal, and his internal monologue is devoted solely to the kind of inane wonderings we all deal with: how much our colleagues earn, when the new store will open in town, and so on. But one day he tells his bosses he’s received a call from a Japanese executive in the same field who purports to know all about ADM’s internal workings, specifically the problem they’re having manufacturing the food additive lysine. The exec wants $10 million to keep quiet, which makes the ADM heads bring in the FBI to investigate. The key, of course, is that the viewer never heard the extorting phone call in question, and has to rely, like the Feds, on Whitacre’s word. Planting the seed of doubt is a smart way to temporarily keep the story tight, but the truth soon becomes obvious even before it’s admitted, and after that, the film is just a matter of watching Whitacre flail about and attempt to play as many sides without seeming like he’s playing them. He turns FBI informant in order to blow the whistle on price-fixing practices at ADM, but his motives aren’t made clear for a while. He just works with a pair of agents (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale) to make tapes of conversations between ADM execs and their foreign counterparts to bolster a criminal case.
If that sounds insubstantial, it’s because Soderbergh is relying on tone to carry the film instead of plot or character, despite potentially compelling entrants in both categories. The problem is that the film’s tone is an absence of one; or rather, that it refuses to commit to any of a number of modes or stories. It would have been better for Soderbergh to have reached for too much than to have sat back and not grasped anything. There are hints at quirk and comedy with certain line deliveries or inherently absurd situations (e.g., Whitacre’s dialogue while wearing a wire is always florid and detailed, mentioning everyone’s name and title). But the lifeless screenplay can’t muster any more humor than a few dry chuckles, nor can it do anything with what should be an inherently interesting dramatic arc that touches on just how much Whitacre knows and how much he’s fabricating in order to continue casting himself in the role of hero. Whitacre remarks several times that what’s happening feels like “a Crichton novel,” and even at one point sits rapt before a screening of The Firm. His obsession, based on the real man’s, is a coy dig at the mainstream Crichton’s work as well as the delusional world Whitcare’s setting up for himself. Yet these moments aren’t funny, or awkward, or dark, or even revealing. They just are. The film is packed with facts and tics and characters but absolutely devoid of an emotional undercurrent that would unite them into a story.
Damon proves again that he’s a watchable lead, but it’s a shame that his talent and character — not to mention the weird devotion of gaining more than 30 lbs. to play Whitacre — aren’t given better material. He hits the right balance of skittish and unhinged, but it’s all for nothing. Bakula is so calm and competent as the frustrated Agent Shepard it’s as if he’s in another movie, and he’s the most likeable member of the cast. Soderbergh again acts as his own director of photography, but after a while it starts to feel like composition stole the attention from directing.
Additionally confusing is the casting of so many comedians in key roles, including McHale, Tom Papa, Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins, Andrew Daly, and the Smothers Brothers. (Yes.) It’s not that they’re incapable of succeeding in dramatic work; they’re all pretty comfortable with the terrain, especially McHale, who gives a solid performance as one of the FBI agents working directly with Whitacre. The question is: Why? Does casting a crop of comedians and slapping on a Hamlisch score make a movie a comedy, or simply mean it wants to appear as one? Does Soderbergh even see a difference? Most of them aren’t called on to be funny or serious, simply to recite the dialogue, which begs the question of what they’re doing there. One answer is that they’re there to provide a feeling of discontinuity from more typical corporate dramas; these aren’t bad guys played by Dylan Baker or Ed Harris, but jokers. That the casting is a kind of leg up on creating a comedy-thriller that incorporates elements of straightforward dramas but ultimately goes in a different direction. The problem is that that doesn’t happen. At all. The Informant! is neither a comedy nor a thriller, neither satire nor drama, neither fun nor fearsome. In a sad twist, it’s too much like Whitacre to save itself: A study in how to talk for hours and never say a thing.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.