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Soderbergh falls short in Fargo-like film

Of all the riddles in the Coen Brothers oeuvre, the great lie that begins Fargo might be the most intriguing of all. If your memory needs refreshing, it goes like this: "This is a true story. The events depicted in this story took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred."

click to enlarge “Two rolls of toilet paper and a copy of Modern Jackass, pronto.”
  • “Two rolls of toilet paper and a copy of Modern Jackass, pronto.”

First sentence, second far so good. But "survivors" in the third sentence suggests that someone didn't survive, that some attention shall be paid to this matter, and circumstances are such that the survivors apparently wish to keep their distance. And then, in the fourth sentence, all bets are off. So eager are we, as viewers, to avoid creating extra work for ourselves too early in a movie, we'll fall for just about anything. We'll even take American cinema's arch-ironists—even then—at face value when they proclaim to uphold the honor of the deceased. At their very word. One actually goes into the movie with the sense that some wrong shall be put to right by it, something noble achieved—for what nobler work can there be than restoring justice to the dead?

The Informant!, on the other hand, directed by another great smirker, Steven Soderbergh, starts off with a much less cunning ploy to get itself off the hook. Or rather to remind the viewer of his place straightaway. After stating that, although the movie is based on a true story certain details have been altered or conflated, the disclaimer proclaims, "So there." So you're the boss of me, then, are you, movie? Because you say so, is that it? What are we, 8 years old? If Fargo beguiles one into believing a fabulous lie, The Informant! thumbs its nose at its audience in a far more artless—not to say condescending—fashion. That's a foolish way to start if you want to be taken seriously.

Dodgy disclaimers aren't the only thing linking the two movies. Like Fargo's Marge Gundersen, Matt Damon's character in Informant! displays a childlike obliviousness to irony that would almost endear him to viewers if there wasn't also something shifty and evasive about him, some quality—hard to put your finger on—that warns against trusting him completely.

Damon's Whitacre is a high-ranking, and splendidly well-compensated, corporate executive for agribusiness empire Archer Daniels Midland. He comes from a humble background, caught a couple of "very lucky breaks" and thrives on the culture of corporate advancement. He also describes himself as a "white hat," standing tall and often alone for what he thinks is right. When production of a corn-derived amino acid starts to falter, Whitacre thinks industrial saboteurs are behind it and breathlessly reveals to his colleagues an extortion scheme masterminded by a shadowy Japanese businessman. The FBI gets involved, their poking around leads to bigger and more damning revelations, and before he knows it Whitacre is caught between doing the right thing—or so he says—and closing ranks with his executive colleagues to save their own hides.

The deeper he gets in the cloak-and-dagger proceedings, the more he starts acting like Fargo's Jerry Lundegaard—flummoxed by the strain of balancing his double life, and apparently too naïve to live a lie without acting suspicious. The difference is that we know Jerry Lundegaard is trying to get away with a crime, while Whitacre can't help acting funny trying to help clear one up. Or is that really what he's doing?

Here, again, is both the strength and damning flaw of The Informant!: We're not sure how far we can trust Mark Whitacre. If anything, we wish we could avoid his tedious company. Ostensibly to reveal an inner life (on top of the two outer ones already in play) Soderbergh employs the shopworn tactic of the running interior monologue. What's actually on Whitacre's mind, though, is mostly superficial and distracted twaddle: musings on which designer ties are on sale, whether he'd be better off buying them in Paris and smuggling them home, and whether "Porsche"—he owns eight cars—is pronounced like "porsh" or "porsha."

Right from its cocky disclaimer, The Informant! similarly suffers from a kind of identity crisis. If it's supposed to be a comedy, it's not very funny, nor is it suspenseful if it's supposed to be a thriller. It seems caught squarely, and with a great deal of talent trapped in the indecision, between Catch Me If You Can and The Insider. With the signal exception of the acting, most things about it seem misdeployed, not least the perky score by veteran composer Marvin Hamlisch, which infects everything with a retro-kitsch flavor (the movie is set in the early '90s but sounds like the early '60s) and reduces any intended gravity to "Leave It to Beaver" levels.

It's debatable, of course, how much gravity Soderbergh intended there to be. As a director, he's equally good at concerned and forthright, standoffish and evasive. The latter qualities seem to get the better of him here. Damon is excellent in the lead role, more intriguing as Soderbergh reveals Whitacre's layers of duplicity one by one, and the supporting cast is uniformly excellent. But as a whole the movie seems made of parts that don't quite fit.

The Informant! continues at the Village 6.

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