Have you ever heard a joke that was so funny you forgot to laugh? Or ever watched a comedy that made you snicker more than it made you smile? If not, there’s a first time for everything. But, for Steven Soderbergh, the fourth time’s a charm.
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Scott Z. Burns; Based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald
Starring: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Melanie Lynskey, Joel McHale
Running time: 108 minutes
Rated: C (for Adult Language)
Have you ever heard a joke that was so funny you forgot to laugh? Or ever watched a comedy that made you snicker more than it made you smile?
If not, there’s a first time for everything.
But, for Steven Soderbergh, the fourth time’s a charm.
Soderbergh is getting good at creating snide comedies that aren’t really funny. His latest film doesn’t rely on slap-stick humor or gross-out gags to garner laughs; ‘The Informant!’ is a two-hour character study classified as a comedy simply because you can’t label it as anything else.
It’s too lighthearted to be a drama, too vague to be considered suspense. The sparse moments of sadness seem distant and empty whenever the camera shifts back to Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a white-collar whistle blower struggling to make everybody happy.
“The Informant!’’ — based on the book by former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald — details the true-life rise and fall of Whitacre, the youngest divisional president in the history of Archer Daniels Midland, an agribusiness empire in the early 1990s. Whitacre worked with the FBI to document ADM’s price-fixing with its rivals in order to control the market for lysine, an essential amino acid.
In an botched attempt to “do the right thing,” Whitacre finds himself unraveling with every lie he musters up, pestered by streams of random thoughts that leave him as unhinged as his hairpiece is. Led by Special Agents Brian Shepard and Bob Herndon (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale respectively), the FBI safely considered Whitacre as their top mole. In Whitacre’s own mind, he became “Agent 0014” (“‘Cause I’m twice as smart as 007,” he boasts) while remaining amiably naïve about the consequences his actions would entail. The comedy – if you really want to call it that – is basically about the FBI’s expectations of an insider and the wandering mind of their snitch.
Damon’s pitch-perfect as the sympathetic protagonist, wandering from scene to scene like a misplaced puppy; tail dragging between his legs, barren confusion clouding his vision. Within the first fifteen minutes of ‘The Informant!’, you’ll want to throw your arm around Mark Whitacre’s shoulder and buy him a beer; Matt Damon’s *that* convincing. He’s slightly overweight and dressed like my 7th grade science teacher, sporting a Teddy Roosevelt-ish mustache and a toupee to rival the Trump’s.
As a director, Soderbergh is practical and traditional, reestablishing himself as the prominent indie director of our time. Unfortunately his work is overshadowed by a gallingly turgid score by Marvin Hamlisch that bubbles and builds to a nagging crescendo and never shuts up, like a TV game-show playing on repeat at a nursing home. (*Writer’s Note: maybe the soundtrack is supposed to ADD to the comedy… Probably not? No?) *The supporting cast is definitely worth the price of admission, stocked with comedians and familiar faces like Patton Oswald, Eddie Jemison, Tom Papa, Paul F. Tompkins, guised as either cops or executives.
In essence, “The Informant!” depicts the downfall of the American Dream, the elusive truth of white-collar America, the lies and the frauds committed daily by big businesses, poignantly reflecting the financial crisis and corporate greed that seems to cut holes in everybody’s pockets except their own. And with Soderbergh at the helm, riding the waves of success from ‘Ocean’s 11-13‘, ‘The Informant!’ is definitely fun to watch, and it looks like it was fun to film, but I’m not sure if I was laughing *with *the movie… or just laughing at it.
By ML Cromwell