Steven Soderbergh is not a director you would instinctively associate with comedy, having made his name with a low-key indie and then cemented it with a series of weighty, worthy dramas. Yes, he made the Ocean’s series, but those films were really more fun than they were funny. Similarly Matt Damon is an actor that outside of that series has gravitated towards roles that call for wounded intensity, with the likes of The Good Shepherd and The Bourne franchise. In fact on paper this farcical caricature of corporate whistleblower Mark Whitacre (Damon) is kind of bizarre blend of absurdity and banality you would normally expect to see delivered by the Coen Bros and starring John Tuturro.
This perhaps goes some way towards explaining that while the Informant! has great style and zips along at a fair old pace, propelled by a commanding performance from Damon, it never really hits its comic stride. Based on the tell-all book of the same title from author Kurt Eichenwald (not a comedy – the ! was something scripter Scott Burns added), The Informant! tells the story of the Lysine (a key additive in animal feed) Price Fixing Scandal, and the resulting three year FBI investigation that resulted in what was then a record amount in corporate fines. It was an investigation marred by the fact that their star witness, Whitacre, was in fact embezzling millions of dollars from the company while he was effectively working undercover for the Feds.
Anchoring the audience to Whitacre, Soderbergh gradually doles out the story from his point of view only, with Damon playing the role of the unreliable narrator – so we’re never sure which information being fed to his handler, Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula), is truth and which are lies. But lie really isn’t the appropriate term as Whitacre, who was Bi-polar as it turns out, embellishes his whole world with delusions as a defense mechanism, a way to shield himself from his actions. He genuinely believes he is the hero at the center of a vast international conspiracy, surrounded by bad guys, and that the company will reward him with a big promotion once its all over even though he is actively working to bring them all down.
A constant accompaniment, Whitacres internal monologue is both random and mercurial; constantly interrupting himself every time he feels uncomfortable to ponder the life cycles of exotic butterflies, the hunting strategy of polar bears, or the correct pronunciation of Porsche. Incidentally, the film is laced with lots of little clues (like the five expensive cars in his garage) as to what he is up to, but no one seems to notice, nor did they in reality. The music is big, lively and serves to mirror Whitacre’s flighty, self-aggrandizing state of mind, with composer Marvin Hamlisch offering grand music for him and an icy villainous score for everyone else.
Obsessed with Crichton novels, and in particular the movie The Firm, the investigation feeds into his fantasies that he is some sort of James Bond figure. Calling himself 0014 because he’s “twice as smart as 007,” he sees himself as the victim, declaring “Everything they’re doing to me they did to Tom Cruise.” Zigging and zagging on the details, constantly changing his story in ways that are improbable yet vaguely possible, he leaves Shepard, who is absolutely dependent on his work, in a constant state of exasperation.
Operating from under a bad wig, Whitacre’s world is anything but glamorous, with Soderbergh imbuing his cinematography with this sickly yellow glaze that gives everything the look and texture of a cheap furniture store. Inventing back-stories for people he hardly knows, Whitacre imagines himself fishing with the FBI, despite leveling charges that Shepard assaulted him after he is initially rumbled. Having a deeply romanticized view of human nature and compassion, he casually enquires over lunch as to what might happen were someone to, say, funnel off $2.5 million into a number Swiss accounts (a figure that is comically ratcheted up each subsequent time its mentioned), genuinely believing no one would care since he is doing such a good job.
A special mention must go to Melanie Lynsky in the role of Whitacre’s mousey wife Ginger, who does so much with the few scenes she has to convey the heartbreak of a woman who had her reality defined and then shattered by her husband’s pathological deceit. In terms of breathing vibrancy into a potentially deathly dull subject Soderbergh succeeds admirably as the whole picture has a real energetic bounce to it with Damon always landing on just the right side of mania without resorting to cheap flamboyance. As a comedy it is far less successful; the humor too dry, too subtle, and too cringe inducing to illicit real roars of laughter. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a very entertaining picture that is well worth seeing anyway.
Starring: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Melanie Lynskey, Allan Havey, Tom Papa, Eddie Jemison
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Runtime: 108 Minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros.