The ads for Steven Soderbergh's new comedy The Informant! are trumpeting it as the work of "the director of Ocean's 11, 12, and 13." The audiences who know Soderbergh purely as the razzle-dazzle sleight-of-hand artist who crafted those pictures (superior entertainments though they may have been) will likely be puzzled and perhaps bored by this film, which isn't in that same style at all; if it resembles anything in the director's admirably diverse filmography, it's his underseen (and even less appreciated) 1996 micro-budget indie, Schizopolis. (This is, I'm certain, an angle that the marketing folks at Warner Brothers were wise to ignore.) Don't get me wrong, The Informant! isn't nearly as flat-out weird as the earlier film, which Soderbergh shot with friends for fun when during his mid-90s dry spell--the new film has an explainable story and make some semblance of sense (I don't present this as a knock on Schizopolis, which clearly isn't interested in either notion). But this new flick--this expensive, well-promoted, big studio Matt Damon vehicle--feels like the first time since then that we've gotten a real peek at the director's sense of humor.
The film tells the true story of Mark Whitacre (Damon), a rising executive at agri-industry corporation ADM who suddenly turned whistle-blower, alerting the FBI to an international price-fixing conspiracy while putting his job and comfortable lifestyle in jeopardy. Whitacre's tale, first told in a book by Kurt Eichenwald, sounds at first blush like a retread of Michael Mann's The Insider, and the book was reportedly a fairly straight-forward piece of reportage in that mode. Leave it to Soderbergh (and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns) to decide it was a comedy.
What it is, however, is a very specific kind of comedy, one that's hard to pinpoint (and presumably even harder to create). It's not character comedy, not exactly, and it certainly isn't set-up/punchline or sitcom or slapstick (though the ads have seized on a couple of Damon's Inspector Clouseau moments as a marketing hook). More than anything, the movie's tone is funny--it's got an oddball sensibility, a peculiar way of looking at things, an absurd, cockeyed view of Whitacre and the quicksand he marches proudly into.
Accurately or not, Whitacre is presented as a dim bulb, Homer Simpson in a Porsche and business suit, and Burns' smartest and funniest device is an idea so simple yet so clever that I can't believe no one has thought of it before: the notion of a first-person narrator who isn't terribly bright. (The only other example I could come up with was Chris Klein's portions of the voice-over in Election). Whitacre's narration is set up to function as these things do--to explain what is taken for granted, to fill in the blanks, to move the story along--but the guy clearly has problems focusing, and his voice-overs turn into tangential, stream-of-consciousness meanderings. "What do they pay Kirk? What does a guy like that get?" he wonders after one exchange. "Is it Porsche or Porsch-uh? I should know that," he asks himself during a leisurely drive.
These interruptions and non-sequiturs, which also include transgressions on polar bears, ties, German translations, TV ideas, and the signing of form letters, are always good for an easy laugh (and indeed, it may be a well they visit a couple of times too often). But they also function as an ingenious window into what's really going on in his head (and the question "What was he thinking?" is one that is not unreasonable to ask, on several occasions). This is why Marvin Hamlisch's score is such a masterstroke. Some critics have complained about the music's jazzy, upbeat incongruity; they're missing the point entirely. Just as the rambling, disorganized voice-overs put us in Whitacre's head, so does that square, goofy music--we all have our own theme music rattling around in our brains as we go through our day, and a guy as button-up and white-bread as Whitacre would have exactly this kind of vanilla whirlygig bouncing around his noggin, and then of course it would transform into shiny, brassy spy music once he goes mole.
That music also seems to represent Soderbergh's joyful recreation of a particular 1970s aesthetic (clearly his favorite period in American film, and one that he's paid at least subtle tribute to in most of his films). His opening credit sequence, which matches up Hamlisch's throwback music with tight close-ups of a briefcase being packed with low-tech surveillance and recording devices, is like something out of Three Days of the Condor or The Conversation (and the retro vibe is only heightened by his use of what appears to be the Laugh-In font for the titles).
He also lucks out with the casting of Damon, who may not have been the most obvious choice to play Whitacre, but certainly turns out to be an inspired one. His performance, complimented by bad hair, a cheeseball mustache, and thirty extra pounds, is an inspired comic creation--he's absolutely full of shit, but totally confident in his own sense of right and wrong, which is more or less inexorably tied to his own sense of self-preservation. It's an unfailingly funny performance, but you can't catch Damon trying to be funny, and the deeper he gets, the more fun he is to watch. Melanie Lynskey is wonderful as his wife; given the opportunity to go for broad caricature, she plays it straight, and the film is richer for it. Scott Bakula does beleaguered well as Whitacre's primary FBI contact. Soderbergh rounds out the cast with a rogue's gallery of stand-ups and comic actors (including Joel McHale, Rick Overton, Paul F. Thompkins, Patton Oswalt, Bob Zany, Tony Hale, and--to this fan's delight--the Smothers Brothers), a choice that helps keep picture clicking along at a good clip.
I'll admit that I've got a blind spot for Soderbergh--for my money, he's not only one of the two or three most skilled filmmakers working today, but one of our most prolific (in the last twelve months, he's released this film, The Girlfriend Experience, and the mammoth, two-part Che). Few directors give me as much sheer pleasure while watching their films; part of the joy of his movies is how he works the angles, finding unique twists on potentially familiar material, subverting angles to create something new and his own. The Informant! doesn't rank with his finest work--it never quite catches fire the way his best stuff does, and it is missing the infectious energy that makes Out of Sight or the Ocean's pictures such a hoot. The pace is a little spotty, and he has occasional difficulty holding on to the film's odd, cockeyed tone. But consider what a boilerplate movie this could have been, what a standard, dull assemblage of cliché scenes and overworked intrigue a lesser director would have slapped together. The more you reflect on the kind of forgettable chestnut The Informant! could have been, the more you appreciate how Soderbergh decided to shake the snow globe instead.