This one’s just for Steven Soderbergh
The exclamation point at the end of “The Informant!” gives it all away. While the title may promise a straight-ahead drama, that bit of faux-jaunty emphasis shows that nothing of the sort is going on. Which is business as usual these days when Steven Soderbergh is the director.
Soderbergh, who won an Oscar for directing “Traffic” and was nominated for “Erin Brockovich” in the same year, is a filmmaker as exasperating as he is gifted. And not just when he forsakes calculated crowd pleasers like “Ocean’s Eleven” for doodles like “Bubble.”
Just as there are studio executives who can, so the line goes, turn a go project into a development deal, Soderbergh’s apparent resolve to tell interesting stories in uninteresting ways has given his recent work a distinct anti-audience bias. “The Good German” was committed to solving technical challenges at the expense of drama, and “Che” was determined to tell a dramatic story in the most tedious manner.
Like these, “The Informant!” was made by Soderbergh largely to amuse himself. He read a story about a real-life corporate whistle-blower and decided, for reasons only he knows, that it had the makings of a wacky comedy starring an overweight Matt Damon. The result, not unlike those sounds only dogs can hear, is not the most promising way to involve people outside the director’s inner circle.
This lack of success is not for lack of trying. Damon does his best to make corporate executive Mark Whitacre a person of interest, but as conceptualized by Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (working from a book by Kurt Eichenwald), Whitacre is not anyone you enjoy spending time with.
Whitacre is introduced as an energetic young executive for agribusiness colossus Archer Daniels Midland, circa 1992, working in the Decatur, Ill., world headquarters and in charge of an ADM plant that’s manufacturing a hot new food additive called lysine. When a persistent virus threatens production, Whitacre tells his boss Mick Andreas (Tom Papa) that the Japanese have been sabotaging things but are willing to back off for a price.
Andreas and an understandably concerned ADM security chief, Mark Cheviron (Tom Wilson), call in the FBI. Whitacre is spooked at first, but at the prompting of his wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), he uses this as an opportunity to clear his conscience.
ADM, he tells surprised straight-arrow FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula), has been engaged in price-fixing for lysine on an international scale. Because he is a good guy who wants to do what’s right, Whitacre agrees to wear a wire and help make the case against his co-workers.
This sounds straightforward enough, but not the way “The Informant!” tells it. A decision has been made to reveal, via extensive use of voice-over, the stream of consciousness passing through Whitacre’s head while this drama is taking place. It’s apparent almost at once that the man is a motor mind with little control over his thoughts, an ultimate loose cannon who simply cannot focus and who hates, hates, hates to tell a straight-line story.
The problem with this creative decision is twofold, the most obvious being that the thoughts going through Whitacre’s mind, whether they concern merino wool or the price of ties, are of negligible interest. It’s a trial to be inside his mind for five minutes, let alone the nearly two hours of the film’s running time.
More significantly, the nature of the voice-over clues us in from the start that Whitacre is the most unreliable of characters, so later “revelations” about him do not feel that shocking or even revealing. If there’s comedy to be found in this gap between talk and action, “The Informant!” has not located it. While this film fits squarely into Soderbergh’s recurrent goal of ignoring audience interest when possible, that’s the only area in which it can be considered a success.
MPAA rating: R for language
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: In general release