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The Lens: Steven Soderbergh's up to more than you think in 'The Informant!'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 30, 2009 - One of the most impressive things about Steven Soderbergh's work over the past 20 years is watching how what first appeared to be a nervous randomness in his selection of films - which shifted from the do-it-yourself aesthetic of "Sex lies and videotape" to the casual gloss of the "Oceans Eleven" series, from unstructured private jokes like "Schizopolis" to Oscar-ready dramas like "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich" - has become a kind of personal calling card.

In the last year alone, Soderbergh has released three films with almost no common ground - a risky political epic ("Che"), an artsy drama about prostitution ("The Girlfriend Experience") and now a deceptively breezy psychological/suspense satire about forms of corruption both economic and personal. His announced projects for the next few years include a martial arts movie, a biography of Liberace, a 3-D rock musical about Cleopatra and a documentary about the late monologist Spalding Grey.

On the surface, Soderbergh's films have a deceptive casualness, a sense that the director and his characters are just breezing along through whatever the story takes them, whether it's an isolated space station or a Las Vegas casino, a grungy drug deal or a Park Avenue condo. But looks are deceptive, as Soderbergh tends to have an understated way of turning those surfaces on their side to show what's going on underneath.

"The Informant!" begins in familiar "Erin Brockovich" territory: It's the story of biochemist turned executive Mark Whitacre, a whistle-blower who worked with the FBI for three years in the early '90s to build a case against his employer Archer Daniels Midland (the Decatur-based agricultural company) for price-fixing. But from the opening credits, with bright, sprawling titles and a brilliantly anachronistic Marvin Hamlisch score that could have been borrowed from some minor romantic comedy circa 1967, you can see that Whitacre (Matt Damon) isn't firmly fixed in the post-Reagan corporate world. As Whitacre provides a running offscreen commentary of non sequiturs about hotel rooms and polar bears, Soderbergh muddies the straightforward account of straight-arrow Feds and corporate intrigue with the rambling interior monologue of a man who's more Walter Mitty than Norma Rae.

Without giving too much away (even if you recall the ADM story from the news, there are still plenty of surprises), "The Informant!" takes all of the elements of the one-man-against-the-system procedural - paranoia, suspense, friendly-but-not-too-friendly federal agents - and gives them an undermining dose of nervous anxiety. There is a strong fantasy element to the typical whistle blower scenario - an ordinary man gets to play at being James Bond - but Soderbergh deflates the fantasy with deadpan humor.

As the plot unravels, the film creates tension not between the traditional bad guy - the corporation - and the courageous informant, or between the hero and the bureaucratic system of justice, but between reality and fantasy, between the viewer's attempt to put the pieces together and the protagonist's ever so subtle unraveling of them. The result is a very funny, sophisticated film about ethics and ambition, about doing the right thing, but also about doing things when you can't tell wrong from right.

The Lens is the blog of Cinema St. Louis, hosted by the Beacon.