Matt Damon, sporting 30 extra pounds and an unflattering toupee and mustache, gives a bravura performance as Mark Whitacre, company man turned FBI snitch in Steve Soderbergh’s darkly comedic take on corporate crime, The Informant!
Whitacre, a real life corporate whistle blower, is a character like no other. His mind easily wanders (often at inopportune times) to banal trivialities—say, the time-saving benefits of flossing while taking a shower, the pronunciation of the word Porsche, or the failures of the metric system—but he thinks they’re deep thoughts. He has a fixation on Tom Cruise inThe Firm and sees himself as a hero in his own thrilling high-stakes drama. He’s also a liar—a fact we are alerted to pretty early on in the story, but that we (and the FBI) conveniently choose to forget.
When Whitacre, who's a VP of biochemistry at agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), tells his bosses that he’s been threatened by a corporate blackmailer, the FBI is sent to investigate. This makes Whitacre extremely nervous. His blindly doting wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) encourages him to tell the truth. So he asks Special Agent Brian Shepherd (Scott Bakula) to meet him in his car, where he informs him that ADM is involved in an international price fixing scandal, and that he has the proof.
Shepherd is visibly freaked out to be the recipient of such a juicy scoop (he nervously fumbles for a note pad he has in the back seat). He and his partner Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) seem acutely aware that they’re in over their heads, but they’re also excited at the career-advancing prospects of Whitacre’s information. So they, like the audience, conveniently side-step his lies and exaggerations. (For example, we soon find out that there was no blackmailer—Whitacre made him up to cover up a mistake in the lab. The price fixing scandal, however, is legit.)
Much of the fun of The Informant! is watching Whitacre live out his corporate espionage dreams. While wearing a wire at ADM, he awkwardly narrates his behavior, greeting everyone by title and broadcasting his every move. At one point in a pivotal meeting, he stares wide-eyed at a plant that is housing a hidden camera. He calls himself 0014 because he's "twice as good as 007."
Still, not everything in The Informant! comes together: Although the film is set in the 90s, Soderbergh inexplicably incorporates 60s-style graphics and music (maybe he’s been watching too many episodes of Mad Men?). And the film doesn't say anything fresh about corporate corruption, cronyism, or the entitlement of the rich.
I guess you just have to enjoy The Informant! for what it is: Smart people making a funny movie about a not-so-funny topic. Soderbergh is in full-on Coen brothers mode here. We’re meant to laugh at what a bunch of morons are on display—and for the most part, we do.