Director Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies & videotape, Ocean’s Eleven, Erin Brockovich) has long been obsessed with liars and conman, and in The Informant! tackles the real life subject of Mark Whitacre, an FBI-sponsored whistle-blower whose own deception complicated the progress of an investigation into corporate corruption in the global food industry. If it doesn’t sound like a funny tale, you’ll understand Soderbergh’s challenge here: how to make white-collar crime – all dreary meetings and secret paper shuffling – into something we can laugh at, however dryly.
Matt Damon, as the mildly bumbling, mildly paranoid, mildly brilliant Whitacre is Soderbergh’s greatest asset in this task, but there’s just not enough story material in the first hour of this film for him to become anything other than mildly amusing. As with the exclamation mark in the film’s title, Soderbergh resorts to other flourishes in an attempt to enliven proceedings – adding an erratic voice-over (allowing us inside Whitacre’s wandering mind) and a very jaunty and distracting score from Marvin Hamlisch. Soderbergh is desperate it seems, to make us believe this is a comedy.
Only late in the film, after Whitacre has provided FBI Agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) with hours of secretly taped meetings, does Soderbergh let the film get interesting. As colleagues, agents, lawyers and his supportive small-town wife (nicely played by Melanie Lynskey) watch with astonishment, we start to see another side of Whitacre emerge. He is a deeply flawed man working in a deeply flawed organization. But this is now tragedy at work – despite the continual clowning of the score.
Soderbergh also shot this film himself, framing the characters constantly in front of windows and bright light, and overexposing the images to flatten and wash everything out in a insipid haze. Perhaps that’s Soderberg’s point? Corporate crime – even the multi-million variety – is so bland and featureless that it’s easy not to notice. It’s also easy to come to the conclusion that it’s not very funny.