WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Director Steven Soderbergh turns the true story of a corporate whistleblower into fodder for an offbeat comedy with The Informant! which stars Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre a high-level executive at Archer Daniels Midland who helped expose the agri-business conglomerate’s illegal price-fixing practices in the 1990s.
Whitacre’s strange adventure begins after his wife goads him into alerting the FBI to ADM’s alleged misdeeds. Just a simple scientist devoted to developing better corn-based products he was unwittingly drafted into the company’s efforts to collude with competitors at the expense of their customers and his conscience could abide it no longer.
At least that’s what he says. Whitacre isn’t the most reliable source in the world as the FBI soon discovers after they send him undercover to help gather evidence for the government’s case against ADM. His perpetual stream of exaggerations half-truths and outright lies makes him a constant source of frustration for Brian Shepard and Bob Herndon (played by Scott Bakula and Joel McHale respectively) the beleaguered agents tasked with leading the investigation. Nevertheless they can’t help but sympathize with Whitacre an earnest amiable fellow who sacrificed a promising career to secretly tape hundreds of boardroom conversations that would eventually serve to implicate many of his co-workers.
But Whitacre’s motivations aren’t nearly as pure as they might seem. Turns out that the government’s star witness in the most explosive case of corporate crime in decades (this was the pre-Madoff era mind you) has been hard at work on some elaborate – and highly illegal – schemes of his own.
A comic version of A Beautiful Mind as The Informant! has been aptly labeled wouldn’t immediately come across as a winning cinematic recipe. But in the gifted hands of Soderbergh and Damon who in Mark Whitacre have crafted a character as unique funny and fascinating as any Coen Brothers creation it’s an unqualified success. Damon is absolutely absorbing in his role taking us on an increasingly ridiculous – and hilarious – ride as his careful plan slowly unravels. As the film’s increasingly unreliable narrator he spouts in manic fashion (we learn later that he suffered from an undiagnosed case of bipolar disorder) various bits of random trivia that serve as uproarious non-sequitors reminiscent of Jack Handy’s “Deep Thoughts” of SNL yore.
At times The Informant! feels a little too proud of its cleverness at turning a serious story into a quirky comedy. Its determinedly silly tone accentuated by Oscar-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch’s whimsically upbeat score might disappoint those hoping for a weightier take on the subjects of white-collar crime and the effects of bipolar disorder. But honestly you should have known what was up when the filmmakers affixed the exclamation point to the title. Were you expecting Airplane! and Hot Shots! to be serious dramas as well?
It’s doubtful that the real-life Whitacre was as outsized a character as Damon’s often cartoonish Hollywood version but he probably wasn’t nearly as funny either.