Opens Friday, September 18
Zippy music that sounds like it’s from the early 60s. Credits in a groovy Brady Bunch-era font. Sets modeled after your living room in the 1970s. Hair and wardrobe straight out of the unfortunate 80s. And all of this for a story that’s supposed to be set in the 1990s. As entertaining as each of these decades can be on their own, when they’re all jumbled together – as they are in the new Steven Soderbergh film “The Informant!” -- it makes for a bit of a tonal mess.
Matt Damon stars in this story inspired by the real-life misadventures of whistleblower Mark Whitacre, who went undercover for the FBI for several years to bust a price-fixing scandal perpetrated by his bosses at massive agri-business ADM. But Mark is not just a good Samaritan in a white hat, but rather an unstable pathological liar with his own crimes to account for.
Damon’s performance is by far the most entertaining aspect of “The Informant!,” especially his relentless inner monologues that hyper-focus on the most inane things while truly significant events are happening all around him. But once Mark’s character is established -- in all of its strangeness -- this chatter becomes more of an irritating distraction from a story that is taking far too long to unfold.
Mark’s pathetic attempts to be a secret agent (he calls himself Double 014 because “he’s twice as smart as 007") are worth some hearty laughs. With unbelievabley gullible and patient FBI agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (“The Soup” host Joel McHale, totally underutilized in a humorless role) guiding him along, Mark blatantly fumbles with his recording equipment in meetings and provides obvious play-by-play analysis into his hidden microphone. It’s funny stuff, but not enough to take up as much of this film as it did.
By the time the arrests are made, more than halfway through the film, the most unexpected and interesting parts of the story finally start to emerge and our main character becomes more of a mystery than we ever suspected. It’s a relief in some respects because, up to this point, Mark has come off as such a dolt that you’ve started to lose faith in a world where a man this stupid could become successful in the first place, let alone find a loving wife (Melanie Lynskey) and have three apparently happy children. But the unveiling of Mark’s true misdeeds and lies is crammed into the last quarter of the film and it’s a shame because that’s when the story finally shows its potential to be more than a bumbling spy comedy.
The biggest disappointment in the film, however, is the glossing over of the mental illness that plagued the real Mark Whitacre. Thoroughly unprepared for long-term undercover work, Mark was left pretty much alone to crack under the pressure. With the exception of a brief mention of Mark’s probable manic-depression, there is little else that illuminates the obvious mental illness he suffered from long before he ever went to the FBI. Knowing this, it’s difficult to just sit there and laugh at the emotional breakdown of a real man with a family that depends on him.
Director Steven Soderbergh made a generally entertaining film with a talented cast but he missed both the emotional and tonal mark with “The Informant!” It’s as if he aimed to make a playful caper in an indeterminate time period, but he chose to do it through a real-life story that wasn’t entirely suited for it.