In Theaters: The Informant

Movieline Score:

If there's one thing The Informant confirms, it's that Steven Soderbergh has got a serious fetish for the mundane. Give him a story that sounds like a knockout on the page -- the tale of a high-class call girl, a murder mystery set at a doll factory, or the story of Che Guevara -- and he'll sprinkle it with as many quotidian details as possible. On the page, The Informant has a plot that is a twisty, psychological surprise. On the screen, The Informant really wants you to hear the buzzing of fluorescent lights in office scenes.

Based on a true story, The Informant finds corporate vice president Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) turning rogue spy after he tells the FBI that his company has engaged in a price-fixing scandal. The product at the heart of the alleged conspiracy isn't some sexy MacGuffin like medicine or guns, though -- it's corn-based lysine. You can sense Soderbergh's grin already.

Damon is a movie star and The Informant is a studio movie, but in many ways, it feels as though Soderbergh is still continuing an arc he's indulged in lately by casting nonactors in his independent ventures: aiming for a performance that is both fascinating and opaque. One wouldn't normally conflate Damon with an alluring blank like The Girlfriend Experience's Sasha Grey, but we soon find that for all of Whitacre's seeming availability (including a constantly running voiceover), we don't actually know him at all. In fact, Whitacre may not know himself.

It's then -- after a dramatically inert middle -- that The Informant starts to intrigue: Suddenly, the audience realizes that this narrator is unreliable, and though he's been speaking directly to us, there's plenty of things that he (and Soderbergh) hasn't been telling us. Unfortunately, it's all a little too late, despite a striking penultimate scene (and really, that's about how long the movie takes to deliver the goods). Other filmmakers might have found this the story's most interesting portion and gotten to it sooner. For Soderbergh, it wasn't quite as hypnotizing as yet another scene of generic white men sitting in a generic conference room.

You've got to admire The Informant's intentions, and the riveting third act (which finally gives Damon his Big Moment) means it sticks in the mind longer than you might expect. Still, what comes before it is not the jaunty caper WB is selling it as, but rather an obsessively mundane and near-condescending take on what actually occurred. Whitacre would do anything to liven up his pedestrian life. Soderbergh would do anything to tamp it down.