Few filmmakers boast a more intriguing track record than Steven Soderbergh, a restlessly intelligent, ferociously inventive director so determined not to get stuck in a rut that he's in danger of falling into a... well, a bit of a rut. Capitalizing on the success of the Ocean's Eleven franchise, Soderbergh has launched into a series of technically impressive, slightly chilly movies that, for all their positives, sometimes seem like their first priority is to play outside of his comfort zone. Momentary detour or not, the satirical whistle-blower saga The Informant! seems like a return to confident, deceptively sleek form. Featuring a steadily mounting shaggy-dog plot and a majestically nerdish turn by Matt Damon, it feels of a piece with the Soderbergh who so effortlessly batted for the cycle with Out of Sight, The Limey, Traffic, and Erin Brockovich at the beginning of the decade. Also, the Marvin Hamlisch score rocks balls.
Adapting Kurt Eichenwald's nonfiction bestseller, Scott Z. Burns's script follows Mark Whitacre (Damon), a dweebish, toupeed Illinois agricultural VP whose oft-stated admiration of Crichton and Grisham novels hints at a rich fantasy life. Contacted by the FBI over a minor matter, he quickly spills the beans on a worldwide price-fixing conspiracy, quickly affixing himself as a James Bond–ish paragon of virtue at the center of the investigation. Then things get weird.
Plotwise, it's difficult to say much more without giving away the good stuff, but the escalating absurdist content is matched at every turn by the film's form. With the (affectionate, not condescending) use of Midwestern locations and extras, the not-as-distracting-as-they-probably-should-be likes of comedians such as Joel McHale and Patton Oswalt in supporting roles, and some riotous use of voice-over narration, this hellaciously entertaining movie points to a moviemaker fully in the zone. Change is good and all, but can this guy stick around for a bit?