Let’s put it this way: With every new project, it becomes more and more difficult to believe that Steven Soderbergh is the same filmmaker who received Oscar nominations for Traffic and Erin Brockovich in a single year. His movies have become increasingly self-indulgent, and he seems to have lost his gift for turning compelling true stories into equally gripping cinema. If The Good German (2006) and Che (2008) hinted at the director’s artistic struggle, The Informant! blows the whistle on it loud and clear.
Talk about a train wreck. This is Soderbergh at the absolute nadir of his career. He teams up with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns to adapt former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald’s 2000 book The Informant (note the absence of an exclamation point), about the strange case of Mark Whitacre. One of the many problems is that the pair don’t so much adapt the book as use it as the springboard for a madcap comedy about corporate malfeasance and mental illness. Another problem is that neither of these themes screams belly laugh.
Whitacre, purportedly the highest-ranking executive in U.S. history to bring his company’s fraudulent practices to the attention of the government, is played by Matt Damon. Since virtually no one who buys a ticket to this film is going to have the faintest idea what its subject looked like, Soderbergh’s decision to have his star put on 30 pounds — and a toupee — smacks of desperation. As does that exclamation point he’s tacked onto the title. It gives the impression of insisting to the audience, “See? Zany stuff is happening. You must be having fun!”
He wishes. The story begins in 1992, when Damon’s character was a rising star at the Decatur, Ill., world headquarters of agri-industry colossus Archer Daniels Midland. He was, in fact, its youngest divisional president to date. Too bad he was also a closet nutcase. When Whitacre’s department starts losing money because of a virus in laboratory vats, he concocts an elaborate fantasy about Japanese saboteurs. Regrettably, Burns’ script offers zero insight as to how a young biochemist managed to rise through the ranks to become a senior executive at one of the 50 largest corporations in America despite being a full-blown loon. That kind of information tends to come in handy.
The sabotage accusation leads to an investigation by the FBI. Scott Bakula costars as Special Agent Brian Shepard. “The Soup”’s Joel McHale plays his partner, Robert Herndon. Again with the zany hair: Shepard’s is so heavily lacquered it resembles a black bicycle helmet bought at a factory seconds store. Like Whitacre’s, it is not particularly funny. Distractingly odd, but not funny.
The feds check out Whitacre and clear him of wrongdoing in the virus matter. Paying a visit to his home to deliver this news, they’re about to drive off when he bolts through his front door and blindsides them with charges that his company has been engaging in price fixing with its international competitors. While Whitacre claims he’s fessing up because he wants to do the right thing, the real reason may have more to do with wanting to play spy. For the next three years, the agents have him wear a wire and videotape high-level ADM meetings. Whitacre refers to himself as Agent 0014, believing himself “twice as smart as 007.” This is about as hilarious as things get.
The film has two running gags, both of which quickly grow tiresome. One involves Whitacre’s exasperating habit of changing his story. It takes his FBI handlers a shockingly long time to realize they’re dealing with an unstable personality. The other gag takes the form of an ongoing inner monologue, a stream-of-consciousness voiceover. Listening in on the torrent of Whitacre’s disconnected thoughts, we understand way ahead of the G-Men that the guy has serious mental health issues. Unfortunately, he’s not just a nut — he’s a dull nut. His mind is a terrible place to waste almost two hours.
There are twists, turns and revelations aplenty, but few the audience won’t see coming, and fewer still about which it will care. This is simply too snoozy a collection of characters to hold our interest. Instead, the viewer is likely to drift into speculation — for example, about why Soderbergh went to the trouble to hire so many comedians — McHale, Patton Oswalt, Allan Harvey and the Smothers Brothers, among others — only to cast them in straight, often marginal parts.
Damon, for his part, does his darndest to breathe life into this ill-conceived caricature but has never seemed more lost. All the talent in the world can’t save an actor when a project is this confused — and confusing. In the final act, it’s suggested that his character may have been bipolar. “It’s like I was two people,” the real Mark Whitacre reflected in a recent interview. All I can say is, it might have helped if at least one of those people were interesting.