'The Informant!' gets absurd, silly

"The Informant!" with an exclamation mark, has all the trappings of a corporate espionage thriller. But it's that none-too-subtle intensifier (!) that gives away the real agenda of director Steven Soderbergh, telegraphing that he is telling a story about corporate whistleblower Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) with his tongue partly, if not fully, in his cheek.

Mark spends almost three years working as an undercover informant for the F.B.I., documenting the fact that his company, Archer Daniels Midland, is engaged in international price-fixing. We're told in act one that this collusive behavior is against the law; however, there isn't a moment in this film when the stakes for Mark, or anyone else, seem particularly high. Though he and his fellow top-tier executives are reflexively mendacious, take bribes and kickbacks, are co-conspirators to defraud the consumer, none of it seems to really matter to any of them, hence any source of tension or conflict are bled from the narrative.

Compounding this laissez-faire attitude is Mark's voice over patter. In the midst of Mark setting up one more sting of his fellow employees, with agents filming and taping, he is more concerned with his unspoken stream of consciousness questions: Why polar bears have black noses? Why Japanese men buy used women's panties from street vending machines? He muses about why certain butterflies are poisonous and others aren't. And wonders why some designer ties have stripes and others don't.

Mark is involved in global law-breaking and he never gets it or has a serious, reflective moment. Hence, the audience, like Mark, has little invested in his plight or his efforts. At best, it all seems strangely interesting, but no more.

There are comedic moments, constructed mainly out of ridiculousness, not out of a plot that is ever tightening. The audience wants to laugh. They're on board; however, they're offered only moments that are absurd or simply silly.

The upbeat soundtrack for "The Informant!" is by award-winning composer and lyricist Marvin Hamlisch, and it often dominates the story as if Soderbergh feels he needs to telegraph certain emotions that are not self-evident.

This film could have been a small corporate thriller. Well, perhaps not. At least not given Mark Whitacre, who seems so blissfully out to lunch while risking prison and the dismantling of his and his family's lives. He's not an innocent; yet he's closer to Forest Gump than not.

It's hard to get a sense of how much license the screenwriter took with Kurt Eichenwald's book, "The Informant: A True Story." However, it's possible that Whitacre, a brilliant biochemist, a man on his way up the corporate ladder, could have flossed from ear to ear and not disturbed anything.

Tangentially, the film was shot with a digital, high-definition Red Camera. It's a state-of-the-art, versatile piece of technology that is coming into its own. The transition to digital is interesting and more and more directors are finding it easier to work with than 35mm film. This change, while it may seem akin to books going to the electronic screen (the Kindle), the comparison is a poor one. Film is a totally different medium and as more and more theaters convert to digital cameras, the revolution will only accelerate.

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