— Film lore has it that Stanley Kubrick originally intended for “Dr. Strangelove” to be a drama, but he found the whole notion of military men and bureaucrats toying with the end of all life on the planet to be so utterly absurd that he had to rethink the film as a dark farce.
Director Steven Soderbergh must have found himself in a similar predicament with “The Informant!” — one could try to make a straightforward, “The Insider”-ish movie out of Kurt Eichenwald’s non-fiction book of the same name (sans exclamation point), but given that the sheer oddity of the lead character, comedy probably seemed like the only way to tackle this material.
Except that “The Informant!” isn’t very funny. Sure, Matt Damon provides a bizarre stream-of-consciousness non-sequitur narration as Mark Whitacre, the real-life biochemist who told the FBI about price-fixing at Archer Daniels Midland, and Marvin Hamlisch’s goofy score all but bruises your ribs by jabbing you with “isn’t this hilarious?” wackiness. But ultimately, the cast plays it so straight that to respond with laughter almost feels like chuckling at a funeral.
When Whitacre is approached by someone at a rival firm in Japan with the news that there’s a mole at ADM sabotaging Whitacre’s experiments with lysine, the company turns to the FBI to tap his phones. When Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) comes to the Whitacre home, Mark’s wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) makes him come clean and tell the G-man that he’s had to make price-fixing calls from the house. In order to avoid prosecution, Whitacre agrees to spy on ADM and help the FBI set up a sting.
Mark somehow thinks that busting the company is going to help him rise up the corporate ladder, even though his friends at the agency try to gently dissuade him of this notion. But after the raid finally happens, the agents learn that Mark is both a blabbermouth (he told various people at the company that the FBI was coming) and a … well, let’s just say there’s one surprise after another about Mark that gives “The Informant!” what little narrative oomph it’s got.
Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) seems to think that stupid people in a position of power are inherently funny. This is the same miscalculation that sank “Burn After Reading” last year, although if you enjoyed that Coen Brothers farce, “The Informant!” could well be right up your alley.
For whatever reason, Soderbergh has loaded up the film’s dramatic roles with a team of comic talent that — in volume, anyway — rivals “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Joel McHale of “The Soup” steals every scene he’s in as Shepard’s flabbergasted fellow FBI agent, and attentive viewers will also catch appearances by Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins, Rick Overton, Thomas F. Wilson (“Back to the Future”), Scott Adsit (“30 Rock”), Tony Hale (“Arrested Development”), Samantha Albert, both Smothers Brothers and even Rome Kanda of “I Survived a Japanese Game Show.”
If nothing else, then, the coffee-break footage on the eventual DVD of “The Informant!” will probably provide more laughs than the film itself, which never seems to find a tone that serves its purpose.
Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at http://www.twitter.com/MSNBCalonso.