The one thing Steven Soderbergh does better than anything else, other than make movies of course, is to keep us guessing. From indie thinkpiece to surreal experimentation to Oscar bait message movie to DV bon mot to Hollywood blockbuster to genre deconstruction, Soderbergh has never been one to rest on his cinematic laurels. He has never been one of those filmmakers (both talented and un so) who have spent a career making one offshoot of what they have done before over and over and over again. Sure, the eclectic auteur has played the sequel card (twice!) with his Rat Pack-influenced, screwball Ocean films, but like his closest cinematic ancestor, Howard Hawks, and his closest contemporary comrade-in-arms, Richard Linklater, Soderbergh has made a career out of doing the very last thing that is expected of him. With his latest, the Matt Damon marquee’d The Informant!, Soderbergh has taken a crack at classic formalist cinema - but with a jaded seventies flair just for kicks.
Based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald, The Informant! is the (somewhat) true story of Mark Whitacre, a corporate biochemist-cum-middle manager who decides to turn informant for the FBI against his company. Found out to be a bipolar compulsive liar, Whitacre drags himself deeper and deeper into his own fantasy world until he can longer breathe. Yet even in the very end, you are never sure what has been real and what has been fabricated by Whitacre. Perhaps the whimsical exclamation point of the title should be accompanied by a quizzical question mark to form an interrobang of exaltation - which is just what the befuddled FBI agents assigned to Whitacre's case must have felt like as more and more of his fantasy world came to light. Yet always believing that what he was doing was for the best - at one point he has himself convinced that after he takes the company down he will be made its new president!? - Whitacre acts as both false superhero and his own archenemy. Soderbergh buddy Matt Daman plays Whitacre as such and in doing so plays him as both the smartest man in the room and the dumbest - which in a way, he may very well have been - and Damon rolls with the role as if he is having more fun that anyone in that aforementioned room.
Similar in mode if not mood (his eclecticism still in tact) to his black & white espionage film The Good German, The Informant! harkens back to another time, another age in cinema. An age when films were more than mere entertainment – though they were still that as well. An age when directors dared to do something more than jut tell a story. Back to the days of the American director driven cinema of the seventies with influences such as Scorsese, Altman, Kubrick, Rafelson, Cimino, De Palma and Coppola. Playing with a cinematic nostalgia for the days before the multiplexes (or at least in their earliest days) and the hyper-budgeted superhero blockbusters, Soderbergh is playing in their park now - and it pays off. This nostalgic seventies feel, while actually set in the nineties, seems to be the ire of some, claiming the film has no focus either in story or technique. If anything, this seeming lack of focus - this wayward style if you will - actually works to give the film a feel not all that detached from the main character and his own inability to tell truth from fiction. In sum, it is merely Soderbergh doing what Soderbergh does best - keeping us guessing. [10/03/09]