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The Inside Joke

MOVIE REVIEW
The Informant! (2009)

TI-FP-0171Warner Bros. Pictures

Lest one be fooled by the presence of full-fledged movie star, Matt Damon. This should be clear: Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!” continues the auteur’s ongoing penchant for experimentation with film form and genre. When considered in a career that includes “sex, lies, and videotape,” “Bubble,” “Full Frontal,” the “Solaris” remake, “Che” and “The Girlfriend Experience,” it’s further proof of Mr. Soderbergh’s admirable conviction to make exactly the movie he wants every single time out.

Yet, even a scenario as seemingly ideal as a talented, smart filmmaker following his cinematic heart has a downside. When Mr. Soderbergh adopts a preferred stylistic conceit, usually a decidedly unconventional way of looking at mundane material, he sticks with it and doesn’t let up whether the film sinks or swims alongside. “The Informant!,” much like “Solaris” and “The Good German” before it, suffers from Mr. Soderbergh’s steadfast commitment to a cold, distancing approach. The picture becomes as much of an enigma as its protagonist Mark Whitacre (Mr. Damon).

The film tells the “true” story of Whitacre’s work as an FBI informant, revealing a widespread price-fixing scheme on the part of the higher-ups at Archer Daniels Midland, where until the mid 1990s he served as the president of the bio-products division. That’s the point at which all comparisons to “The Insider,” “Michael Clayton” or any of the others serious corporate-conspiracy thrillers of the past come to an end.

Mr. Soderbergh envisions the Whitacre story as a jaunty, energized comic trip through farcical terrain, complete with an overbearing old-fashioned Marvin Hamlisch score and a visual scheme tinted an ugly corn-like yellow. He religiously adheres to the concept, to the idea of infusing the movie with heaps of pizazz, even as the material demands a vastly different, more soulful approach.

The filmmaker has not made a tale of corporate injustice, but a steadfast depiction of Whitacre’s spiraling out of control amid the barrage of ever more complicated lies he tells about his own conduct and that of his superiors. Mr. Damon, in an admirable performance, keeps up his character’s chipper, ambitious façade even as truth and deception coalesce in an almost incomprehensible blur.

Still, the picture hits its notes with a deadened manic focus that siphons the heart and humanity out of the story. It relentlessly propels forward with scenes that achieve the same basic effect — Mark deceives all those around him and himself, in a fashion he can’t quite understand — while using the same basic methodology.

The screenplay by Scott Z. Burns piles plot development upon plot development, complex lie upon complex lie, to such an outlandish extent that the movie becomes as jumbled as its protagonist’s life. As if that weren’t enough, nearly every scene gets underlined by what seems to be a paragraph of voiceover, or the loud jazzy clanging of Mr. Hamlisch’s retro score, or both. “The Informant!” is a frenzy of activity, as if Mr. Soderbergh and his actors were in a race to the finish, and every bit as bland as the antiseptic corporate world that serves as its setting.

THE INFORMANT!

Opens on Sept. 18 in the United States and on Nov. 20 in Britain.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Scott Z. Burns, based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald; edited by Stephen Mirrione; music by Marvin Hamlisch; production designer, Doug Meerdink; produced by Gregory Jacobs, Jennifer Fox, Michael Jaffe, Howard Braunstein and Mr. Eichenwald; released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Matt Damon (Mark Whitacre), Scott Bakula (Agent Brian Shepard), Joel McHale (Bob Herndon) and Melanie Lynskey (Ginger Whitacre).

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