The Informant! skews funny-peculiar to intriguing effect; The Baader Meinhof Complex blows stuff up real good 

Remember the flashback in Natural Born Killers that replays family trauma as a literal sitcom, with canned laughs braying at the sickest moments and dad Rodney Dangerfield leering like Manson at Zanies? A similar strain of artificial levity seeps into Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! like an airless funk. A fact-based story of corporate skullduggery and whistleblower anxiety, The Informant! is played not for conspiratorial chills but for a discomforting effect akin to bombing at a comedy club's open mic. But the result is almost the same: the clammy trickle of flop sweat, the feel of pressure and scrutiny that won't let up.

As the nominal hero, Matt Damon even looks a little like Neil Hamburger. Playing Mark Whitacre, a VP at bioengineering behemoth Archer Daniels Midland, Damon adopts an ass-clenched totter, nerdy glasses, the posture of a guy who forgot to take the coathanger out of his suit jacket, and a mustache threaded from Christopher Cross' pubes. From Kurt Eichenwald's nonfiction book, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns have extracted the story of how Whitacre tipped the FBI in the mid-1990s to what became the biggest anti-trust case in U.S. history—a price-fixing scheme in which ADM colluded to rig the market for the food additive lysine. But Whitacre, to put it mildly, was soon found to have problems of his own.

From the opening credits, which ape a loungy '70s vibe, Soderbergh glosses The Informant! with a coat of superficial jollity—the caper-movie joie de vivre of his Ocean's Eleven movies. He's enlisted Marvin Hamlisch to provide the type of wacky, obtrusive score he composed for Woody Allen's Bananas back in the day, an Austin Powers-esque mélange of porn-soundtrack flutes, 007 guitar and swanky atmospherics. Call it Muzak for a falling elevator—it hounds Whitacre like a sonic shadow as he digs himself in deeper, agreeing to tape-record his bosses for his FBI contact (Scott Bakula, with Mr. Spock hair).

But if you're constantly aware of the movie's aggressive comic tone, you're also nagged from early on why it isn't funnier. Whitacre's secret-agent act is made to look as foolish as possible, whether he's peering in plain view into a hidden camera (to the FBI's horror) or narrating a walk through his office as if he were fingering the mobsters in Goodfellas. Laughs, though, don't seem to be what Soderbergh is after. A prolific director who treats his quick-turnaround projects as formal exercises for testing out a technique or theory—the color-coded narrative of Traffic, the stylistically divided sections of Che, the coolly elided exposition of The Limey—Soderbergh takes The Informant! as a chance to see whether he can evoke a dangerously deluded psyche by setting the movie's tone at odds with its subject matter. He even stocks the large supporting cast with comedians (Patton Oswalt, Bob Zany, Andrew Daly, Paul F. Tompkins, even both Smothers Brothers) but keeps them from doing funny business—as if, through Whitacre's eyes, the entire world was a private joke. He just couldn't figure out whether he was the teller or the punchline.

That makes The Informant!, like many of Soderbergh's recent movies, an intriguing experiment that's more involving mulled over afterward than it is in the moment. Like Damon's performance, it's cleverly conceived and impressively executed—the moment where Whitacre's desperate interior monologues falter is a chilling fait accompli for both actor and director—but seems to lack some crucial spark of human empathy. Whitacre remains a goofy enigma, while ADM's crimes are reduced to a McGuffin. Everything in The Informant! seems smaller than life.

The same can be said of the German docudrama The Baader Meinhof Complex, an account of the notorious Red Army Faction terrorist group whose bombings and assassinations in 1970s Germany made global headlines, all but creating the notion of radical chic. Directed by Uli Edel (Last Exit to Brooklyn) with unflagging surface energy, the movie concentrates on three principals—journalist turned bombthrower Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), wild-eyed ringleader Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and his beloved revolutionary sweetheart Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek)—but crams in so many other incidental characters and events, with so little care or feeling, that its fealty to the historic record seems almost numbingly obligatory. Rest assured, though, that if a bombing occurred in Germany anytime between 1968 and 1977, you'll probably see it re-created here.

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