Starring: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula and Joel McHale
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven”)
Written by: Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”)
There’s only so much a dark comedy can get away with when it’s trying to be satirical. If a filmmaker is not careful, it can go over the edge and become just too goofy to be believable. Think about directors Joel and Ethan Coen. They got it right with “Burn After Reading,” but stumbled into something foolish with “The Ladykillers.” If the make-up of a film in this genre is off by a few degrees, things can get quite messy.
While “The Informant!” is advertising itself as a “true” story, director Steven Soderbergh seems to find a hard time in drawing a line between the completely ridiculous and the genuine moments of dry comedy and drama in what becomes his version of a cinematic three-ring circus.
The star under Soderbergh’s big top is actor Matt Damon, who has worked with the director in the “Ocean’s” trilogy and in the second part of his Che Guevara biopic of last year. In “The Informant!,” which is adapted from the 2000 book of the same name (sans exclamation point) by former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald, Damon plays Mark Whitacre, an agra-business executive who becomes a whistleblower for the FBI when his company is caught up in a price-fixing scheme.
Playing out more like a character study of someone Eichenwald described in his book as a manic-depressive, it’s an interesting choice in tone that Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) decide to take. All the ingredients are there for something more straight-laced, but Soderbergh and Burns chose Mark’s eccentric personality and turn him into someone about as cartoonish as Inspector Gadget or Maxwell Smart.
Throughout the film, we hear Mark’s random inner monologue drive his behavior as he continually lies to FBI agents (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale play the main ones here) and changes his story about the criminal practices of his Fortune 500 company. Nicolas Cage’s character used the same type of narration in Gore Verbinski’s underappreciated 2005 film “The Weather Man,” but in “The Informant!” Damon’s dialect feels more unconscious and disconnected from reality.
Maybe that’s the point of it all, but the tone works against the film especially when the story isn’t as off-the-wall as Soderbergh would like you to believe. Sure, this specific white collar crime back in the 90s, was strange, but there are also parts of the story that read like a financial report. What’s so humorous about price-fixing anyway? Without a character like Mark, who is amped up by a confident performance by Damon, “The Informant!” is just another tale of corporate greed. What’s next, a Bernie Madoff musical?