Dressed in a garish neck tie, with a pitiful beige toupee perched on his head and a pillowy midsection, Matt Damon is almost unrecognizable in The Informant!. Damon gained 30 pounds, and his charisma went AWOL in the process of becoming a Middle American corporate biochemist-turned-FBI informant.
Based on journalist Kurt Eichenwald's book, The Informant! is from the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction school of drama that gave us Catch Me If You Can and The Hoax. Director Steven Soderbergh puts an absurdist comic spin on the real-life case of bipolar whistleblower Mark Whitacre (Damon) and his bungled effort to highlight price-fixing in the heartland.
Every nook and cranny of The Informant! is engineered to show the depths of deceit hiding beneath American business-as-usual in Soderbergh's take-down of what might be called "the man." If you thought Mike Judge's Office Space or The Office conveyed the slow, airless death of corporate America, The Informant! exaggerates white-collar banality into the realm of conceptual art. Soderbergh's beige ambiance is clearly striving to articulate a certain shade of American mediocrity.
Whitacre and his agribusiness employer, Archer Daniels Midland, operate in the heart of Decatur, Ill., corn country. In Soderbergh's hands, Dullsville, USA. Speaking in the voice-over narration that blankets the film, Whitacre observes how King Corn is everywhere. It's in plastic bags, granola bars, orange juice, and much of what ADM manufactures. Like big business corruption, corn is insidious. And there is big money to be made from the stuff. If the Food, Inc. agribusiness naysayers were handling this story, it would undoubtedly be a Michael Clayton-style thriller meant to set our hearts racing with outrage at corporate corruption and our corn syrup-dominated diets. But with terminal wiseacre Soderbergh at the helm, outrage has been alchemized into farce.
ADM's fortunes rest on not just corn, but also food additives like lysine, one of their big money makers. Despite the utter snore of this heartland lysine industry, Whitacre's life is flocked with touches of glamour. He jet sets from Zurich to Tokyo to Hawaii making business deals with other lysine players and keeps a raft of BMWs and Porsches in his garage.
But ADM's big business goes bust when Whitacre begins telling tales of a mole in the company who has introduced a lysine "bug" into the system, eating up their profits. Suddenly the FBI is involved. Whitacre lets Feds Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) know corporate blackmailing is the least of their worries. For decades, ADM has been price-fixing lysine on the international market. Whitacre, it initially appears, is a decent, hapless — and very dull — guy whose whistleblower motivation is a belief in fair play. But it appears moving up the ADM corporate ladder and one-upping his superiors may also be on Whitacre's mind.
In Soderbergh's topsy turvy storyline, reversal is the name of the game. Good guys can turn out to be bad, and events can change course in the blink of an eye. Soderbergh hammers that madcapped idea home in a number of ways, primarily with an ironic soundtrack courtesy of Marvin Hamlisch. As the FBI plot thickens, Hamlisch's kitschy score — suggesting an episode of Magnum P.I. or a Sixties sex comedy — undercuts the solemnity with pure goof. Suddenly, the mundane is patently ridiculous.
And yet, there is the nagging sensation throughout The Informant! that Soderbergh doesn't quite trust his audience to pick up on the joke. So he overplays his hand, using the jokey music as the equivalent of a sitcom laugh track. It's a way to underscore in the most obvious way when and where to laugh. Even Soderbergh's casting is snarky. In The Informant! notorious goofballs — Joel McHale, Tom and Dick Smothers — play straight men and studs play palookas.
Damon is nevertheless a riot, as an absolutely clueless, self-interested guy whose inane interior monologue wallpapers the film as much as Hamlisch's score. At first Whitacre's stream of consciousness brain farts — about everything from polar bear noses to wool sweaters — can seem like just a reflection of his dullness. But over time we come to realize that interior white noise is really just Whitacre's way of distracting and distancing himself from what's really going on. He creates a kind of psychological alibi for himself, a good friend and neighbor full of affection for his fellow man. Soderbergh's interesting insight here is making one realize how easily good and bad can coexist in the same person.
The Informant! is amusing, especially for those charmed by bone-dry wit. But amusing is about as far as it goes. Soderbergh's brand of snark can leave a bitter taste in your mouth. The Informant! tries to make us feel like insiders, people in on the joke and hip to the irony. Soderbergh's easy, breezy dismissive style gives the distinct impression that we are all being conned.