As much as he tries to turn himself into a wily directorial chameleon sailing from project to project, unifying themes keep emerging in Steven Soderbergh’s oeuvre. The notion of characters as mice running on corporate treadmills is one such motif, stylized for sardonic paranoia in Kafka, milked for crowd-pleasing Oscar bait in Erin Brockovich, and chilled for emotional alienation in The Girlfriend Experience. The Informant! is the director’s latest and in some ways most explicit take on it; it is also, regrettably, his most disinterested one. The source is Kurt Eichenwald’s richly tragicomic account of Mark Whitacre, the real-life agricultural suit whose whistle-blowing on his corrupt company in the early ‘90s gradually revealed his own compulsively fraudulent psyche. Matt Damon, doughy and sporting a ratty mustache, plays Whitacre as a genial jackass with a mind lubricated by Michael Crichton thrillers. He first crosses paths with the FBI over an investigation for his employer, Archer Daniels Midland Company, and soon he’s helping them glean evidence of the firm’s price-fixing schemes. Problem is, separating truth from fantasy in Whitacre’s reports becomes increasingly difficult not just for the federal agents but for the bipolar protagonist himself.
From the title’s exclamation point to the nudging Mickey-Mousing of Marvin Hamlisch’s score, The Informant! is Soderbergh in larky mode, which in its sterility has recently become virtually indistinguishable from his cerebral mode. There’s a wealth of promising material here. Whitacre’s frequent-flying rootlessness, grinning self-delusion, and Joycean stream-of-consciousness thoughts (“I like indoor pools…Very mysterious, that steam”) carry the seeds for a mix of breeziness and discomfort—Alan J. Pakula dread as screwball comedy. But Scott Z. Burns’s screenplay is a jumble of gutted relationships straining to be jaunty, and Soderbergh’s camerawork, in the past so limber and alert, oozes digital orange hues and flat depth of field which turn the screen into a vast, runny cheese. Most damaging is Damon’s stunt performance at the center, mistaking paunch and wigs (and, later on, a bald pate that gives his routine away as a Philip Seymour Hoffman impression) for insight while shoving to the side potentially interesting characters like Scott Bakula’s dedicated FBI agent and Melanie Lynskey’s devoted wife. Soderbergh may set out to expose the resonance behind a fabulist’s giggly ruses, but in the end it’s the audience who gets duped.