“Smart” and “cynical” are not the same but, lately, film culture has confused the two—as proved by Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! and Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. Both films pretend to critique greed and corporate insensitivity through the filmmakers’ liberal-leaning scrutinies of the American way of life. Soderbergh dramatizes how an Archer Daniels Midland executive, Matt Whitacre (Matt Damon), swindled his company for over $10 million while Moore takes his usual scattershot, mockumentary approach to the banking industry and its connection to the recent economic collapse.
It’s the combination of “smart” (Soderbergh’s anti-hero rattles off interior monologues full of factoids and facetious observations) with “cynical” (Moore relates plant closures with private home foreclosures) that limits the insights either movie could offer. Instead of researching original information that might speak for itself, Moore editorializes. He pushes situations for gallows humor—which is merely a judgmental reflex. Instead of clear, dramatic presentation of Whitacre’s actual and psychological background,
Soderbergh endorses the man’s warped, subjective point-of-view. (“So there,” goes the film’s opening disclaimer.) He forces the audience to share Whitacre’s self-delusion as if to implicate viewers in Whitacre’s crime. It’s the presumptuousness of Moore and Soderbergh’s approaches that is offensive. Neither film is as sophisticated as Next Day Air, where Mos Def joked, “This is America, steal something!”
Beneath the supposed satire of The Informant and Capitalism lay a smug satisfaction and secret admiration for American corruption. Where would Moore be without it? His tendency to sentimentalize economic plight (visiting the space that once housed the auto plant where his retired father worked) while demonizing those who enjoy economic benefits is too simplistic. It doesn’t risk understanding that losers and winners share the same dream based on a particular ideology—a love of wealth and materialism. That means Capitalism is useless as a guide to understanding what capitalism actually means to Americans.
Fidelity to capitalism wouldn’t necessarily scare off viewers; Soderbergh banks on it in his Oceans franchise—those embarrassingly popular celebrations of dishonesty, greed and thievery. But the “smartness” of The Informant! pretends disapproval of Whitacre’s fraudulence while making it feel like some kind of spree. (Marvin Hamlisch provides a cheery, mock-’70s score meant to evoke the con-game of The Sting. It’s the most sickening movie music since Juno.)
What’s really happening in these “smart” and “cynical” movies is class warfare: Enormously wealthy filmmakers take pious issue with how others make their money. Moore’s ambush-and-blame methods are bad journalism. His lack of moral, political context is as questionable as ever. Soderbergh’s jaundice is almost palpable. The Informant!’s color scheme—hotel-lobby beige and living-room orange, both video-blurry—is sarcastically bland. The film’s fake-neutral tone can’t disguise contempt for its Midwestern-American setting. Soderbergh thinks it’s funny to laugh at the mundane—even though a genuinely perceptive filmmaker like Mike Judge based Office Space’s rich observations in just such a setting.
It’s no coincidence that Matt Damon’s straight-faced buffoon characterization (girth, moustache and eyeglasses) resembles Stephen Root in Office Space. But Root’s anomic drone Milton Waddams was a loser, Damon’s smart-aleck Whitacre hits the jackpot like the Oceans gang. He simultaneously represents American crime and banality (constantly lying to his co-workers, the FBI, his wife, while stashing millions in loot). Equally banal is Whitacre’s “smartness”: a trained biochemist, he rattles off pieces of information like an overeducated idiot. He pathologically points out what’s wrong with America (“Basically everyone in this country is a victim of corporate crime before they finish breakfast.”) yet profits from it.
Like Moore’s more-of-the-same muckraking, Soderbergh is into some strange form of “smart and cynical” entertainment. There’s no humanity to relate to, no wit to laugh at, only chuckling at one’s own sense of superiority—if you can afford it. Both The Informant! and Capitalism: A Love Story would be a little less obnoxious had they switched titles.
Capitalism:A Love Story
Directed by Michael Moore
Runtime: 105 min.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Runtime: 108 min.
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