There’s a line that Mark Whitacre likes to share with almost everyone he meets. “I caught a lucky break,” he says to his shrink, his lawyer and eventually the FBI. After his parents died in an automobile accident when he was six, a rich amusement-park owner in Ohio adopted him, and so his story begins. But Whitacre, an excitable, sausage-fingered executive at A.D.M, a giant agribusiness corporation, is merely creating a façade — one that will complicate “The Informant!” and disintegrate during the film.
This, however, is Steven Soderbergh’s challenge to the audience: he begs for the audience’s patience and invites us to either bask in the film’s absurdity or wallow in its lack of coherence. When Whitacre dutifully reveals his employer’s illegal price-fixing scheme, we accept that he is the do-gooder he purports to be. Yet the price-fixing scheme is mostly bogus. And Whitacre, too, is bogus — he’s both a liar and a thief. His parents, of course, are gardening in the suburbs, and the scheme is merely the same shenanigans every corporation practices.
Throughout the film, Whitacre relishes in the buzzing quagmire he’s created — running his mouth off in interviews, creating ludicrous stories of his kidnapping and assault-by-briefcase — and, while absurd, it’s entertaining to watch Whitacre run the show. At the film’s heart, it is a farce. The layers of lies exasperate all the characters but make for our delight.
Though Whitacre is the chief clown in “The Informant!,” the bit-characters who have to sort through Whitacre’s hot sizzling mess are the real-life comedians. Soderbergh cast several stand-up comedians — Tom Papa, Patton Oswalt, and Andrew Daly among others — to play the lawyers, executives, and FBI agents responsible for reaching the “truth.” The comedians only speak a few lines, but their presence contributes to the underlying absurdist joke that is the film. Recognizable comedic figures play fairly straight-laced roles, turning office settings and paperwork scenes into bizarre, uncomfortable farces reminiscent of the television show “The Office.”
In those office spaces, the jaunty 1970s slapstick jazz that Hamlisch wrote for Woody Allen’s “Bananas” plays throughout. While the music underscores the sense of pompousness and idiocy that characterizes A.D.M’s executives, it’s also irritating. The same is true of Whitacre’s disjointed voice-over narration in which Whitacre expresses his manic, disconnected inner life and eventually reveals that he is bipolar. (For example, while doing quotidian tasks, like attending meetings, he’ll muse about the texture of an avocado.)
But for all its narrative revelations, Whitacre’s voice-over is verbal graffiti and, like Hamlisch’s score, it’s abrasive.
This is where Soderbergh fails: “The Informant!” irritates the viewer. It’s noisy, the scenes all take place inside office buildings, and there is no B-storyline. Really, there isn’t much more than Whitaker’s manic mess.
But Soderbergh is reaching back to old cinematic tropes — withholding information and provoking the viewer as he creates true cinematic suspense. If anything, “The Informant!” is a testament to Soderbergh’s atypical approach to filmmaking and ability to direct any genre. Shot in only 30 days using a digital camera and filmed by Soderberg himself, “The Informant!” is his third movie in two years, coming after the massive “Che” biopic and a movie called “The Girlfriend Experience,” which features the porn star Sasha Grey.
There is a real, risky ambiguity in “The Informant!” Confounding expectations is the name of the game: Soderbergh draws us into his obsession with the art of lying and the impossibility of arriving at the truth. Nothing is predictable. There are things we can’t understand: Why would Whitacre even go the FBI in the first place? Why did Soderbergh use a loud, 1970s pink-and-yellow font in his title cards in a movie set in a ’90s corporate world? And, honestly, why is absolutely everyone wearing a toupee?
But “The Informant!” is Soderbergh telling the joke his own way, casting who he wants to cast, ignoring the viewers who will not put up with Whitacre’s insanity, and refusing to conform to mainstream style. “The Informant!” is a good movie but it is not a great movie because all it’s got is one manic shlub pulling all the strings and simultaneously getting them all knotted up. Most people can’t build a movie around just one lying schlub, even if he is Matt Damon. But Sodbergh can.