Steven Soderbergh may have a reputation as a somewhat cold, clinical director who approaches filmmaking as a series of brainy experiments. If this is true, it comes with an upside: despite his prolific output, he may be incapable of making the same movie twice.
The Informant!, the true-life story of unstable corporate whistle-blower Mark Whitacre, could look like any number of his other films: most conspicuously the true-life anti-corporate crusading of Erin Brockovich, but also the stylized but heavily researched procedural of Traffic or even, given the Decatur, Illinois setting, the small-town ennui he captured in Bubble. The ad campaign name-checks Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy, implying a merry caper.
The Informant! doesn’t much resemble any of those movies, though, and if it weren’t for Matt Damon playing Whitacre, it might be tricky to place the film into a definite timeline. The jaunty Marvin Hamlisch score makes the movie sound like a late-’60s romp. The blown-out soft-focus semi-faded cinematography makes it look like something that’s been sitting around at least since the ’80s (and yellow light casts a sickly glow across many scenes, an amusingly ghastly evocation of the corn-industry setting). A dash of paranoia brings to mind ’70s thrillers, while the corporate intrigue — and Whitacre’s explicit references to John Grisham and Michael Crichton — fit with the early ’90s, where most of the story actually takes place.
This all has the effect of a time-scrambling more subtle than the chronological shuffle of The Girlfriend Experience — it may look like a Soderberghian exercise at first, and it kinda is, but the temporal disparities turn out to best serve Damon’s remarkable performance. Just as Soderbergh’s style serves his character, Damon’s physical transformation — he’s rounder, hairier, and softer, with a subtle fake nose — is no mere superficial trick.
Whitacre looks and acts like banal middle management, but the movie lets us in on his inner monologue as he races through tangents — business practices, classy ties, polar bears, ideas for a TV show — with hilarious, unnerving speed. Voiceover in a film can be a lazy shortcut; here it’s a brilliant one, taking us further into the character’s unique brain and complementing Damon’s excellent on-screen work. Whitacre’s work with the FBI, to implicate his agri-business firm ADM for price-fixing, eventually reveals unstable psychology beneath his earnest goofiness; the movie feels controlled yet scrambled because Whitacre does, too.
In the commentary, exclusive to the film’s Blu-Ray release, the filmmakers reveal the care that went into the film’s bizarre comedy-drama-thriller tone — something they liken to a “fever dream”. Screenwriter Scott Burns seems to identify with Whitacre’s runaway trains of thought, which doubtless allows the movie some comic empathy. Soderbergh stays quiet on the matter, though you can imagine his multitasking (a dozen features over the past decade) finding some kinship with his jittery character. He does discuss using multiple camera set-ups on many scenes for a more performance-oriented shoot, and casting a variety of comedians — Patton Oswalt, Joel McHale, Scott Adsit, Tony Hale, and Tom Smothers all turn up — less for direct comedy (the movie’s sense of humor is situational and deadpan) than their ability to make an immediate, straightforward impression.
The supporting cast, effective as they are, are secondary as they move in and out of Damon’s background. Six minutes of deleted scenes peel back additional layers of Whitacre’s mental state: we see him attempting to cut a side deal with the feds, leaf-blowing in the middle of the night, and musing on Abraham Lincoln outside his former place of employment. His personal troubles run far past the frame.
The nature of experiments, of course, is that they don’t often work as awards bait. Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich took on nasty corporations and netted Julia Roberts an Oscar for the trouble; Damon and The Informant! paint a far more detailed and unusual portrait of its lead, and only (arguably) helped nudge Damon toward a supporting nomination for his far less interesting work in Invictus. But petty awards-show injustices likely don’t matter much to Soderbergh; he probably has four more experiments buzzing around in his head.