Trying to pinpoint the cinematic style of Steven Soderbergh is a difficult task. Look at his output as a director: last year’s sprawling “Che,” the gritty yet soft “Erin Brokovich,” the super-chic “Ocean’s Eleven” series. The movies he’s produced have been just as ambitious, like the impressionistic story of Bob Dylan’s life, “I’m Not There,” or “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.” As varied as Soderbergh’s films have been, a trope begins to emerge.
This is a director in love with remarkable people who often border on the unreal.
Soderbergh’s latest film, “The Informant!” introduces us to a new quirky character, the real-life Mark Whitacre. Whitacre led a double-life as the vice-president of an Illinois-based agribusiness firm, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), all the while supplying secrets to the FBI.
The film takes place in a no-mans-land town in Illinois, in the dawn of the 1990s. Throughout the film, Whitacre goes to great lengths to catch fraudulent price-fixing deals at his own company, recording them on secret tapes to be used against ADM in court.
Whitacre first spilled some details of these atrocious business dealings to FBI Agent Shepherd (Scott Bakula), then later to Agent Bob Herndon (Joel McHale), who requests proof to verify Whitacre’s claims.
Throughout the whole scandal, Mark makes himself out to be a man of ethics and morality for fighting the corruption within ADM, yet later on, he reveals an insiduous ulterior motive. Unfortunately, at that point he’s in far too deep with both ADM and the FBI to achieve any of his questionable goals.
With George Clooney on board as a producer and a supporting cast of Joel McHale [host of E! Entertainment’s The Soup] and Tony Hale [Buster from “Arrested Development”], one might expect an effortless comedy. Instead, the jokes seem forced and unnatural. Those who were expecting an “Office Space”-esque comedy might be disappointed.
Soderbergh’s newest creation utilizes a strange narrative form, one which becomes especially evident in the many business meetings that Whitacre attends as an executive. Instead of seriously considering the endless deals he signs with corporate big-shots, Mark occupies most of his time entertaining himself with eccentric limericks.
While these moments contribute to the film’s light-hearted tone, they might also confuse the average audience member. The storyline is lost in Soderbergh’s attempts to making the movie a quirky indie movie, rather than sticking to his usual directorial style.
Although different audience members may leave with varying understandings of the film, one thing will be unanimous — Matt Damon’s performance as Mark Whitacre was flawless. In the beginning of the film, Damon convinces the audience that he loves his job by gleefully spewing fun facts on every topic, from his son corn production. As the film progresses, he changes from a loving employee to a whistle-blower, causing the biggest FBI scandal known to date. By the third act, Damon shifts further until his character’s cheery charisma becomes a more serious personality disorder, leading to his eventual downward spiral. Damon takes us on a journey through Whitacre’s ever-changing psyche. This peek into the reality of a bi-polar disorder, a problem which can mask serious occurrences, brings a human element to the film that should have been given more spotlight.
While Soderbergh made the grade with the “Ocean’s Eleven” series, “The Informant!” just falls short. It’s an overworked film focused more on jokes than on the plot. Although the film is based on a true story, its muddled storyline, juxtaposed with comedic entertainment, leaves the viewer slipping through the cracks, barely grasping the ideas of the film.