Of all the time-wasting Internet videos out there, one of the more interesting types are the mock trailers that completely recast the tone of the subject, advertising Mary Poppins as a horror movie, for example, or The Shining as a happy family comedy, with music selections and narration dramatically changing the way we perceive the familiar scenes. In a strange way, The Informant! is like that on a grander scale. With its subject matter of corporate espionage and corruption, it might have been a thriller. That’s certainly how the main character, FBI informant Mark Whitacre, imagines the situation, likening himself to the hero of a Michael Crichton or John Grisham novel. But instead of recalling The Insider, The Informant! shifts gears, subtly pitching itself as a bone-dry comedy with idiosyncratic retro flair.
At first, I assumed that this was all director Steven Soderbergh’s doing—he seems to love playing with genre and tone—but then I changed my mind. It’s not just the direction; the odd little grace notes are already there in Scott Z. Burns’s screenplay, particularly in Whitacre’s digressive internal monologue. Why would you have the guy pondering the noses of polar bears if you expected the material to be played completely straight? But then again, maybe the ultimate responsibility for the quirkiness of The Informant! lies with the real-life Whitacre, whose exploits are eventually revealed to be so bizarre that a conventional interpretation would likely fall flat, overwhelmed by twists that defy belief. But wherever the inspiration comes from, The Informant! works. Its slippery self-presentation is part of its considerable charm.