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Sock It to Us, Baby

With “The Informant!” director Steven Soderbergh mines his favorite subject, amoral man, for laughs.  

   The difference here is that for this “based-on” film he has found a real-life subject who fits his vision.

   Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) was a whistleblower who ratted on his employer, the agribusiness giant ADM, blowing the lid off a massive price-fixing scheme. His story was told in the book “The Informant” by New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald.

   But Whitacre is no ordinary turncoat, here. Like the James Spader character in Soderbergh’s breakout hit from 20 years ago, “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” he could be monster, sleepwalker, genius, fraud — or all of the above.  In an amoral universe, there is no center, and Soderbergh’s movies have a way of leaving you off balance.

   Damon put on 30 pounds for the role of Whitacre, and, possibly with the aid of prosthetics, a wispy moustache, and a toupee, he goes against type. His walk is almost robotic, his stare glassy, yet quite often he carries a look of barely repressed rage. Is he the quintessential, but jilted, company man?  Or a maniacal schemer?

   Damon’s performance is effective partly because you never quite know what makes his character tick.  When the movie delivers its big surprise about three-quarters of the way in, it packs a wallop.

   Oddly, “The Informant!” has much in common with the summer’s other work by an “auteur,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.”  The two could be the season’s bookends.  Both employ postmodernist irony to get their ideas across, even in their tweaked titles — the exclamation point in one, the misspelling in the other.

   Both are larded with retro references: Soderbergh takes a story from the ’90s and cinematically locates it in the late ’60s/early ’70s. Visually, the opening titles borrow from “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” and Marvin Hamlisch’s delightful soundtrack is a pastiche of the era’s sitcoms and spy flicks.  

   And in case you didn’t get the point, the Smothers Brothers have cameo roles.

   There is a real danger in this kind of moviemaking.  Where there are few rules, rhyme and reason often get jettisoned. Screenwriter Scott Burns gives voice (in voiceovers) to a running monologue in Whitacre’s head that is mostly a collection of random observations and musings.

   If the idea is to reveal something of Whitacre’s personality, it doesn’t really work. You’re left wondering if he simply has Tourette’s.

   Until the payoff, the movie lags in middle sections.

   As good as Damon’s performance is, it is difficult to connect with a seemingly affectless character. Scott Bakula provides some much-needed spark as the FBI agent who coaches Whitacre, playing the part with an amusingly exaggerated emotional fragility.

   Coming one year, and multibillions of dollars, after Lehman Brothers, AIG, TARP, et al., a movie about a 1990s price-fixing episode seems almost quaint. Perhaps that explains why Soderbergh dresses it up as a burlesque.  

   But we might as well enjoy a few laughs while corporate criminals of all kinds pick our pockets clean.  

   Sock it to me, baby.


“The Informant!” is rated R for language.

It is playing at The Moviehouse in Millerton, NY,

the Cineroms in Winsted and Torrington, CT,

and elsewhere.

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