Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! is a clever, unconventional comedy about corporate greed in the 90′s and the highest-ranking executive whistleblower in U.S. history. The wacky sibling of the more serious Erin Brockovich, Soderbergh’s latest strikes a satirical tone on the timely, true events. Perhaps the exclamation point in the title gave it away.
The story focuses on the agricultural business of corn byproducts used in a variety of foods. “It’s all very scientific, but if you’re a stockholder, all that matters is that corn goes in one end and profit comes out the other.” But a criminal conspiracy means “everyone in this country is a victim of corporate crime by the time they finish breakfast.”
Though the cast is loaded with recognizable comedic faces, Matt Damon (in his fifth collaboration with Soderbergh) makes this funny film worth the watch. The accomplished, charismatic actor shows tremendous versatility by playing a bumbling fool for plenty of laughs.
Wearing dorky glasses, a thin mustache, and 30 extra pounds, Damon transforms into a goofy, delusional businessman named Mark Whitacre. The middle-aged biochemist has a family, a rising career at the agricultural conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), and a rehearsed orphan background he tells to anyone who will listen.
Then, inexplicably at first, Whitacre turns whistleblower. A routine phone monitoring to catch an extortionist snowballs into revealing a global price-fixing scheme among industry competitors orchestrated by ADM. Soon he’s spilling the beans on the entire scam to the FBI and wearing a wire to meetings.
Whiteacre imagines himself as a secret agent, enjoying the undercover operation with a boyish grin and a naive sense of purpose. One day he’s a vice president monitoring food additive numbers, and the next he’s a covert informant setting up secret meetings with the FBI. Whitacre tells his gardener, who obviously isn’t supposed to know about the case, to call him 0014 because he’s “twice as smart as 007.”
The film is at its best when Whitacre is transporting wiretaps to various business dealings, narrating every step in obvious detail. “Entrance breached” as he walks through the office door. People are greeted with their full name and title and then reiterated into his chest mic much to the chagrin of his frustrated FBI handlers (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale).
Hilarious, intermittent voiceovers indicate what Whiteacre’s wandering mind is thinking at the exact moment, and it’s rarely focused on the intense task at hand. Life changing moments or important connections are narrated by thoughts about polar bears and ideas for TV shows.
Soderbergh skillfully tells an entertaining, complex story as Whitacre’s story unravels and the FBI discovers there’s more than just price-fixing going on. You can’t help but laugh at The Informant! (and feel a little sorry for him) as the loud-mouthed, pathological liar digs himself in a deeper hole to the baffled looks of his allies. Damon delivers again.
4 out of 5.