It's not new for the monumentally prolific Steven Soderbergh to release two movies in a single calendar year, nor is it new that those two films should represent strikingly different styles and narrative interests, but I am comfortable in claiming that 2009 is something of a banner year for showcasing the man's chameleonic skills, particularly if we count the epic Che dyad as a 2009 release, on account of that nobody outside of New York or Los Angeles got to see it during its flash release in December. But from that film's classically-influenced digital cinematography and poetic-documentary style, the director leaped to the sometimes maddeningly opaque social commentary and meta-narrative play of The Girlfriend Experience back in March, before finally coming to the mock-Oscarbait true story of an agribusiness whistleblower, The Informant!

That wacky exclamation point tells us most of what we need to know about the movie, including what sets it apart from the great majority of Soderbergh's preceding work. More than anything else he's ever made - more than the cool zaniness of the Ocean's films, more than the sardonic yuppy parody of sex, lies and videotape - this is a full-on comedy, although it is still a Soderbergh film, and the people who allow the poster and ad campaign to fool them into thinking that it's a wacky romp will be in for at least a bit of a crippling disappointment. A comedy it may be, but a desperately cynical comedy about a man who wants to be a hero but can't square that with a career full of the most terrible, self-serving acts, and who eventually goes to jail. All the humor on display is pitched from the same angle: God, people can be atrociously dumb, ain't it great? At any rate, it's no The Insider, and indeed it seems as though the point was at least in part to take the piss out of the seriousness of that film and its ilk - it especially seems like a notoriously experimental, audience-unfriendly director attempting to apologise for once having given the world the fine but unexceptional prestige picture Erin Brockovich.

The Informant! is Mark Whitacre of Archer Daniels Midland, played with no small amount of zeal by friend of Soderbergh Matt Damon, covered in just-about-perfect fake hair and fat, though there's much more to the performance than just body modification. To the director, the actor, and theoretically writer Scott Z. Burns (with Soderbergh, it does not do to assume that the screenplay we get has very much to do with the screenplay on paper), Whitacre is a fascinating assemblage of tics, neuroses and contradictions, in possession of a rich and wholly demented inner life that keeps spilling out into the film in the form of voice-over that makes virtually no sense at first blush: why on earth, when talking to ADM executives or FBI agents, does this peculiar man start thinking a long, rambling think about the way that polar bears hunt, for example? After a while, it's obvious - okay, not obvious, but we're watching a character study above all else, and the primary way that Whitacre's character is made manifest is through the bizarre things he says and thinks, and the dull shock that seemingly everyone around him sports as their first and primary response to his musings.

The one thing that The Informant! (Goddamn, I love that punctuation mark) really isn't, is a satisfying, straightforward dramatisation of recent history, although almost everything that happens is square enough with my fuzzy memories from the mid-1990s. For a start, there's no real reason to believe that what we learn of Whitacre-the-man, rather than Whitacre-the-whistleblower, has any basis in reality whatsoever. If this is a truthful biopic of that individual, then it is only in the sense of Herzog's ecstatic truth, where movies can get at what is honest only at the expense of what is factual.

Moreover, the simple question of representation is given a rough workout in the film, which is not altogether as formally rigorous as Soderbergh's most obnoxiously brilliant experiments with narrativity, but still counts as wildly peculiar by the standards of mainstream cinema. The film takes place from late 1992 until 1997, with a pair of codas in 2002 and 2006, but you would never tell from looking at it. Oh, the hair and clothes are pretty much accurate, but the way it was shot; the font of the credits; and especially the score; these all date the film securely to sometime around 1978. Which I think to be a joke in and of itself at the expense of all those other whistleblower dramas, given that the 1970s were one of the all-time best periods in cinema history for anti-corporate thrillers. But whatever the justification, the effect is damned strange: watching a story of the '90s (with anachronistically late license plates, but not that many people are going to notice that and even fewer will care), and it looks like the 1970s. It's fascinating, somewhat inexplicable, and best suited for those viewers, like your humble blogger for example, who enjoy Soderbergh's compulsive dicking around just for the sake of it.

It also results in a tension between the film's single best and single worst element. To start with what's good, the score by the retired Marvin Hamlisch - arguably the greatest signifier of "the 1970s" in the picture - is nothing less than a flat-out fucking masterwork of film composing. I cannot remember the last time that a movie's tone and ultimate effect was so greatly influenced by the original music playing underneath it, but it has been years, at any rate. Taking what could in many places have been a dour or uninflected moment of men in suits wandering about, Hamlisch's jaunty, poppy music gives the film a constant light tone, a touch sarcastic, and devilishly funny (the best gag in the whole movie takes place on the soundtrack, involving a mariachi sting). Much of the film's comedy would be sour or just bland without the score giving it that certain "oomph".

And then there's the other thing, and I absolutely hate to say it, because I love love love when Soderbergh shoots movies under the pseudonym "Peter Andrews" - I think that Che was the loveliest film of 2008, and the first time I ever really bought into the whole "digital cinematography revolution" thing - but oh my lord, The Informant! is ugly. Obviously, part of that is because movies made in the late '70s and early '80s were ugly themselves, more than any other period in movie history; all flat and brown. But there's deliberately ugly (something Soderbergh does well), and then there's ugly digital crappiness, and The Informant! is ugly and digital in all the wrong ways. It seems impossible that a man who shot Traffic in no small part because he wanted to prove the supremacy of film should not find himself making a digital picture that bears all the watermarks of terrible digital production. But life is funny sometimes.

On its own, The Informant! is one of the most fun things I've seen all year, with a brassy lead performance that might even stand as Damon's best. But it's painful to look at; that has to cost it a point, and I daresay it even costs the film a spot as one of the very best films of the year-end run. A good movie it is, but to this Soderbergh junkie, alas, just a hint shy of great.