- Rated R
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All photos © Warner Bros.
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
teven Soderbergh is one of those directors whose reputation is stronger than his filmography might suggest, and a big part of that is because he takes a lot of risks. Most of them don’t work out in his favor, but with his new film, “The Informant!,” he manages to take a subject matter that normally wouldn’t be considered funny and turns it into one of the best dark comedies of the last few years. Based on the true story of Mark Whitacre, a bipolar genius and the highest-ranking executive to turn snitch in U.S. history, “The Informant!” may sound like an absolute bore, but it’s actually a well-paced satire that lives and dies by the hilarious performance of its lead star.
The movie begins in 1992 when Whitacre (Matt Damon), a trained biochemist and the youngest VP to walk the halls of agricultural megacorp Archer Daniels Midland, decides to cooperate with the FBI when he exposes a multi-national conspiracy to control the price of lysine. In order to properly prosecute those involved, FBI agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) take Whitacre under their wing and convince him to wear a wire. Most people would be crazy to risk such a high-paying job, but Whitacre views it as an adventure, even imagining himself as a secret agent. What the FBI doesn’t realize is that their star witness hasn’t been entirely forthcoming about his own shady dealings – a fact that, when combined with his ever-changing account, could even ruin the case against ADM.
One of the funniest things about the film is the way in which Whitacre’s story just continues to snowball from bad to worse. He goes from exclaiming that he has nothing else to hide to divulging new information in a matter of minutes, and it’s all attributed to him having some kind of bipolar disorder. The guy just can’t help lying, and the worst part is, he’s so smart that he actually gets away with it. That intelligence shouldn't be confused for sharpness, however, because while Whitacre may know how to trap his fellow co-workers into admitting their guilt, the way in which he goes about it would make even Inspector Clouseau blush. Surprisingly, when it’s revealed that he may not be right in the head, Soderbergh doesn’t ease up on the laughs, but instead mines Whitacre’s illusions of grandeur (like believing he’s going to be made President at ADM when it’s all over because, well, someone needs to run the company) for more comedy.
None of this would work quite as well as it does without Matt Damon, who delivers one of his most memorable performances to date. Though he gets considerable help from the physical transformation he’s undergone (never underestimate the power of simple props like glasses, mustaches and wigs), Damon understands the nuances of the character so well that he plays Whitacre like a cute puppy dog that you can’t bring yourself to be mad at when it pisses on the carpet. Because, really, that’s essentially what Whitacre is doing to the FBI agents in charge of the case. For as much as Damon brings to the role, however, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns matches it with a whip-smart script loaded with some of the best use of narration you’ll ever see. Though it’s typically frowned upon as a cheap method of telling the audience what a character is thinking, the narration here is essential to the story, because it's practically a character itself.
Unfortunately, Soderbergh spends so much time convincing the audience to like his lead protagonist that he seems to have forgotten about everyone else. Scott Bakula, in particular, is completely miscast as Whitacre’s go-to FBI guy, while the concept of hiring comedians (like Tony Hale, Patton Oswalt, Andrew Daly and Dick Smothers) for serious roles was completely lost on me. His idea to turn a white-collar crime thriller into a comedy, however, works exactly as planned, and the whole tone is only further solidified thanks to an excellent score by Marvin Hamlisch done in the style of a 1970s spy film. Soderbergh really deserves kudos for sticking to his guns here, because while “The Informant!” could have easily been told as a straight-up thriller, it wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting. Don’t believe me? Just look at the exclamation point in the title.