Steven Soderbergh knows how to bring the opposite of what you’d expect and make it feel natural, a quality he proves every time he makes a film. In 2009, with his slick and stylish low-budget indie The Girlfriend Experience and his offbeat star-studded studio film The Informant!, he further proves that he’s a bit of a cinematic prankster willing to subvert expectations and play around with the formal elements of film without letting his experimentation get in the way of telling great stories. He’s one of the best, or at the very least one of the most interesting, directors working today.
The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant! are films about capitalism and the quest for success turning people into cogs while they barely notice, hampered by a tunnel-vision of doomed entrepreneurship which will ultimately lead to collapses of both financial stability and familial structure. In the worst case, the characters will bring down more than their own finances in the self-destruction of their success. Soderbergh has captured our collapsing economy perfectly in two films that make the broad consequences of our economy very personal. Both films play out almost like stripped-down heist movies with protagonists who think of themselves as slick as Danny Ocean, but who find that wheeling and dealing the real world leaves a person without a safety net.
With The Girlfriend Experience, Soderbergh has made a fairly short but very interesting film that examines the people who make their living off of the somewhat rich and kind of powerful in corporations and asks us to think seriously about the difference between a personal trainer and an escort. After all, in both cases payment is being exchanged for interaction with another human being. This is a film that can be as cold and beautiful as its lead role, a woman (Sasha Grey) who builds her life around forming hollow, fleeting relationships with men who think they love her, or at least love what she represents.
As an escort, she feels she is better than some common prostitute since she’s being paid for the Girlfriend Experience, and not necessarily just physical contact. People are paying for companionship, a relationship, fake as it is, just as the people who pay her boyfriend (Chris Santos), a personal trainer, begin to think of him as a friend even though the circumstances are equally false. As played by Sasha Grey, this young woman is very smart and scarily composed in a movie that keeps its distance. This is a remarkably restrained film, tactful and tasteful about a sex worker. It can be as austere and respectful as its lead character. She’s intellectualized her job while allowing that intellectualization to seep a chill into her relationship with her real boyfriend. As they sit in their apartment with its modern décor and large empty spaces it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the equally stylish-but-empty apartments and hotel rooms where we otherwise find Grey and the empty impersonal gym spaces where we otherwise find Santos.
Told out of order, the film is as scattered as the lives of its leads, more about tone than plot, more about the characters’ carefully constructed shells than any emotions bubbling over. A handful of scenes find Santos flying to Las Vegas with a group of bankers after being invited by a client. As the bankers talk about the collapsing economy and a possible bailout (the movie was filmed and is set in late 2008), it’s clear that his profession and his girlfriend’s profession are parasitic ones. If the New York upper-class loses the money to spend on fake relationships, where will that leave the two of them? And when both of them make their living pretending to care about others, can even their own relationship be fully trusted?
With The Informant!, Soderbergh has made a film about people within corporations, based on a true story that reveals a corporate culture of favors, kickbacks, and mutually beneficial deceptions and then follows an ambitious whistleblower that gets himself into trouble by learning too much from these encouraged tactics. Set in the early 90s, it’s easy to see the seeds for our current economic state being sown, and yet this is not the darkly menacing whistleblower movie you may be expecting. This is hardly Michael Mann’s great The Insider or even Soderbergh’s own Erin Brockovich, each presenting the story of a courageous person dodging corporate thugs to show the world the ugly underbelly of a business. Here, Soderbergh has no qualms about detangling the expectations of the audience and inverting the whistleblower formula by delivering a serio-comic tragedy of sorts.
Matt Damon stars as Mark Whitacre, an upper-mid-level employee of Archer Daniels Midland, an Illinois-based company involved with creating chemicals for food ingredients. Early scenes show Whitacre as he goes to work driving by endless corn fields. Soderbergh gives the movie a smeary orange-infused color palate, as if the processed corn chemicals of the milieu have infected the film. It looks uglier than you’d expect a Hollywood picture to look, which perfectly fits the unexpected tone of the film, which is lighter and goofier than you’d expect.
Whitacre has contact with an FBI agent, played stoic yet exasperated by Scott Bakula, who gets him to agree to expose price-fixing and other corporate nastiness occurring in his business. Through a mix of inept spying and inept scheming, Whitacre nearly derails the investigation in one odd, comedic sequence after another. He sees himself as a great spy (calling himself double-oh-14 since he’s twice as smart as James Bond), is obsessed with Michael Crichton and John Grisham novels, and eagerly absorbs and ponders trivia and minutia. He so desperately wants to be the hero of his life’s story that it’s by turns funny, pathetic and sad. He narrates the film, constantly losing track of what he’s saying, diverging from the context of the moment to ponder, say, polar bears, foreign vending machines, or how awesome things are for him. By putting us inside the character’s head, we begin to see his delusions and his eccentricities all the more clearly, for he’s a man who’s outwardly normal, but inwardly in need of serious help.
Soderbergh gives the movie a bouncy, jazzy score from Marvin Hamlisch which is located directly on the border between cool and kitsch, in some cases scoring the movie in which Whitacre saw himself, in some cases scoring the strange comedy we are seeing. Soderbergh then takes the strange nature of the underlying story and amplifies it by casting professional jokesters like Joel McHale, Tom Papa, Tony Hale, Andrew Daly, Paul F. Tompkins, and Patton Oswalt in supporting roles. They aren’t knowingly playing comedic roles, perpetually winking at the camera, but rather, they are playing true situations that are inherently comedic and playing them totally seriously. It creates a sense that the business world is a finite universe populated primarily with buffoons.
The Informant!, along with The Girlfriend Experience, finds Soderbergh shining light into odd corners of our economy, forming a picture of why we are where we are, revealing the types of ruinous personal and societal decisions so many people unthinkingly made. It reveals a failing status quo that went mostly undiagnosed with disastrous consequences. By making movies about very specific characters and moments, Soderbergh has created a portrait of the American economy that shows how broad policies and decisions are affected by and have effect on the most anonymous of us all, of how the world can crash around people while they only reluctantly notice their own fragility or even their own culpability.