Steven Soderbergh's new film, The Informant!, is a facetious and half-baked affair. It tells the true story of Mark Whitacre, a senior executive at the agricultural processor Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), who became an FBI informer in the early 1990s, and exposed an international price-fixing cartel.
The problem for the FBI was that Whitacre, who is played by Matt Damon, was a very unreliable source, with more than a touch of Walter Mitty about him. His revelations about price-fixing turned out to be correct, but he was also a habitual liar whose own hand was in the till.
Damon plays Whitacre in sympathetic and funny fashion. Bulked out, with a drooping moustache and spectacles, he is more middle-manager than Jason Bourne. The film includes Whitacre's voice-over musings on such subjects as Japanese women's underwear and the pronunciation of the word "Porsche".
Nonetheless, Soderbergh's decision to make The Informant! as comedy rebounds disastrously. Marvin Hamlisch's jolly music might have worked well in a series of Benny Hill sketches but seems inappropriate for a film that is about white-collar criminality. There is also a dispiriting sense that the film was thrown together on the hoof. The flashy intertitles and zany sequences of Whitacre and co playing golf look like something out of The Monkees.
"Every one in this country is a victim of corporate crime before they have finished breakfast," we are told in the film. Soderbergh has some revealing and provocative points to make about how the prices of everyday foodstuffs are manipulated. He is presumably trying to tell us that corporate crime is so commonplace that it's banal.
The problem is that the film-makers' offhand treatment of the subject matter prevents this from tugging at the audiences' consciences and emotions in the way, for example, that Soderbergh's far more rousing Erin Brockovich managed. It doesn't help, either, that Whitacre is so very deceptive; he eventually exasperates everybody, including the audience.
Whitacre's motivation is impossible to fathom. Is he an idealist, courageously working undercover for the FBI? Is he plain greedy? Is he suffering from bipolar disorder? The film deliberately declines to provide definitive answers.
Damon is surprisingly adept at playing psychopaths and liars. He seems such an all-American boy that when he is cast against type, the effect is provocative and intriguing. If a less sympathetic actor had played Whitacre, the tone of The Informer! would have been very different. Sterling support comes from Melanie Lynskey, as Whitacre's ever-loyal wife, and Scott Bakula as his long-suffering FBI contact.
Ultimately, though, The Informant! is frustrating viewing. It has neither the brio of a full-blown comedy, nor the intensity of a thriller. The real mystery is why Soderbergh made it and what he was trying to say.