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REVIEW: The Informant!

Have you ever noticed how some people just aren't that funny? They make jokes, they pull faces to try to make you laugh, but it just doesn't work. Which, of course, is kind of funny. If you're a person inclined toward funniness. The Informant!, a new film by Stephen Soderbergh, is a comedy that isn't very funny. In fact, it's difficult not to read the exclamation point in the film's title as a sort of warning: the people behind this film make comedy like deaf people sing. The exclamation point reads like an attempt to telegraph (!) to the movie-consuming populace that, yes, a wacky time will be had by all willing to step up to the plate and sacrifice seven bucks and two hours of their time.

The film considers the truth-y story of Mark Whitacre, a biologist-turned executive with one of America's largest corn product manufacturers. The story is a classic tale of tangled romance: sociopath meets corporation. As the film opens Whitacre is seen blowing the whistle on a supposed blackmail scam. Soon, it is revealed that all is not as it schemes (!!). In fairly short order, Whitacre turns informant on his employers over a price-fixing deal, and then is revealed to be turning on his bosses in order to cover up his own misdeeds and, almost accidentally, in hopes of taking over the company himself. Complicated? Mais (!!!) oui!  Interesting, certainly. Funny. Well...in a corn-y (!!!!) sort of way.

One problem here is the fact that Soderbergh is a very serious man, more devoted to critiquing corporate culture than generating belly laughs. The humour in this film feels like an afterthought and one doesn't getat a the impression that, at home, the director feels this sort of thing is very funny at all.

The real problem isn't the story or the acting. The story is interesting enough and the acting, particularly Matt Damon's Twinkie-scarfing portrayal of the plump, seemingly naive executive, is competent. The problem is that the film tries, and fails, to be funny.

First, the aesthetic is all wrong. The film is set in the 1990s, the era of--I don't know--grunge rock and the rise of the Internet--but the look is pure 1960s and 1970s. The film is continually interrupted by Laugh-In-style graphics that serve to prop up the titular exclamation point by saying, 'aren't we the wacky filmmakers, using, as we do, wacky Laugh In-style graphics. Ho ho!'.

The lighting is pure 1970s; the soundtrack is inane 1970s elevator-pop, designed to show the banality of upper middle class American life in the most obvious way imaginable. It's all very annoying and not funny at all. It all adds up to a mess of styles--from the film's very first shot of a very 1970s reel-to-reel tape recorder (long gone by the time Kurt Cobain came on the scene). 

I'd love to know what sorts of decisions were made that led to this mess. Was it desperation? Did test audiences bolt for the exits? Could the filmmakers not get a handle on the stylistic zeitgeist of the 1990s (in all fairness, not an easy task)? I don't know how it happened, I can only be sorry that it did.

As for the rest of the film, there are a lot of attempts to ape the Looney Tunes genius of Ethan and Joel Cohen. Unsuccessful attempts. The Cohens are incredible at many things, but they have a particular genius for casting. Characters in Cohen brothers films can react broadly to an outrageous situation in a way that makes you laugh with them. When the fairly mediocre actors in this film gawp and gape at the latest act of corporate malfeasance, they merely look...simple. There's nothing worse than a jaw hanging open and nobody laughing. Trust me, I'm now an expert.

Some people like Stephen Soderbergh's films, but I never have. I often wonder if film buffs feel they should like him because of his early 90s success, sex, lies, and videotape. Surely Oceans 11, 12, 13, etc should have been a warning that the man isn't a comic director at any rate. After all, the sight of George Clooney and Brad Pitt (both put to good (Pitt) and excellent (Clooney) use in Cohen Brothers films) walking around the screen under the deeply misguided impression that they're chanelling Frank Sinatra was more than mildly depressing. 

Those films should have served as a warning. Much like the exclamation point in the title of this one!!!!!!