The first movie to successfully copy the poster for The 40 Year-Old Virgin, but one of Soderbergh’s weaker films
By Jack Kentala
Yet another disclaimer: This is not your typical film review. I spend half of it talking about cinematography and name-dropping the past ten years of Soderbergh films. I also may or may not reveal the ending. That said, you’re still allowed to read it. If you want.
There are several points in The Informant! when Matt Damon’s character, Mark Whiteacre, drowns out the dialog at the foreground of a scene in voice-over and indulges in a usually-funny aside about something completely random, like sentences that could trigger your death (“Our ties are identical, but the pattern on mine is reversed.”), how some butterflies just get by on their looks, or that some people are really good listeners and that he could imagine bass fishing with them. At first it seemed an afterthought: a solution in the editing room to spice things up.
But it became pretty clear: For the first half of The Informant!, Whiteacre gets deeper into his role as an FBI informer on his price-fixing company. During this, he gets wired, told how to record tapes, and all that spy stuff that’s been in a zillion movies. And during this spy stuff that’s been in a zillion movies, Whiteacre digresses. I came to think: what would I prefer? Asides and anecdotes, or literal instructions about how to, say, operate a Nagra?
I later came to think it wasn’t just a final voice-over to sate test audience responses. It digs into the core of the narrative: Whiteacre is a lonely man, and the movie is about loneliness, and he tries to thwart that loneliness by digging himself a gigantic hole he can’t possibly fill himself by the end, and that a prison jumpsuit ends up his attire for nine years.
It’s nearly impossible to predict what a Steven Soderbergh Film really is. This, in particular, is marketed as Matt-Damon-as-nerd spy-spoof movie, from the director of (the dubious) Ocean’s 11, Ocean’s 12, and Ocean’s 13; not from Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh; and definitely not the director of the scalogical-comedy-that’s-fucking-hilarious-but-only-seen-by-ten-people Schizopolis. It gives itself a lightness by mentioning the Ocean movies, but, like Ocean’s 12 and 13, that lightness doesn’t always execute as good as the original remake.
Case in point: the first half of the film is great. It’s a spoof on corporate culture, amateur spy games, paranoia, and the entire concept that Matt Damon, post-Bourne, is a badass who couldn’t possibly look like nerdo ultimo by gaining thirty pounds and donning a ridiculous mustache. The second half? It gets bogged down. The main thrust of the plot – the FBI investigating Whiteacre’s company and a conspiracy with other company to fix the price on lysine by controlling production levels – disappears, and it becomes a montage of Whiteacre going to attorney after attorney trying to explain it’s not his fault, all while making extravagant lies that end up implicating himself much more than his partners in white-collar crime.
I’ll mention again that you have to dig to find the undercurrent of loneliness. Whiteacre never seems to connect with his wife or kid, and his favored relationship is with his FBI handler, who he, as previously mentioned, envisioned as a bass-fishing, good-listening friend. It seems as a catalyst, possibly, for the bulk of the film’s actions; that Whiteacre just wants some attention.
This is the part where I talk about great it is that Steven Soderbergh keeps maturing as a cinematographer. Compared to the lush Che and the gunmetal-blue The Girlfriend Experience, The Informant! falls a bit flat. Granted, it was shot on the fantastic Red camera, which, even though printed on 35 mm stock for theatrical distribution, is still the best digital camera out there, and Soderbergh is its champion. Otherwise, Soderbergh, known for his careful use of color palette, goes a sort of Bubble route and seems to leave a lot of incandescent light uncorrected, lighting interiors all orange and blotchy, usually with blown-out windows giving characters an eerie halo.
I just glanced at his filmography, though, and it looks like he’s shot every one of his films (as “Peter Andrews”) since Traffic in 2000. Not a lot of high-profile filmmakers do (or did, in the case of Stanley Kubrick) that.
So The Informant! is uneven, funny, and not without deeper meaning. It’s not one of Soderbergh’s stronger films, though Damon turns in an amazing performance that effortlessly carries the film with a weird nerd-charm. And while the Ocean’s movies near-guaranteed success allowed Soderbergh to indulge in whatever sort of cinematography he felt like cinematographing, The Informant! is oddly, disappointingly tame. The same can be said of the plot and its execution.