Film Review: The Informant!

Matt Damon’s amusing performance in this wild true story of an unstable corporate whistleblower is compromised by Steven Soderbergh’s heavy-handed direction.

The exclamation mark in the title is a clue of what you can expect from The Informant!, the new film from the prolific Steven Soderbergh. It’s based on the outrageous true story of Mark Whitacre, an executive at agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) who exposed a price-fixing scheme but emerged as one of the most erratic and untrustworthy whistleblowers imaginable. The real-life tale is fascinating, but Soderbergh’s handling of it is a misfire. This is a movie that keeps poking you in the ribs to make sure you get how wild and crazy it is.

There’s no faulting lead Matt Damon, who put on weight and donned a risible moustache to play Whitacre; in a 180-degree turn from the killing machine in his hit Bourne series, he’s very amusing and believable as a biochemistry nerd with an ADD brain and delusions of grandeur. If only Soderbergh had let Damon’s witty performance stand on its own, The Informant! might have been a disarming success.

Instead, the director feels compelled to goose the narrative, underlining every absurd turn of the plot rather than trusting the audience to piece things together. His worst choice is the relentlessly jaunty music score by Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line, The Way We Were); Soderbergh says he hired Hamlisch after re-hearing his score for Woody Allen’s Bananas, but what might have worked for a mad romp like Bananas is a jarring intrusion in a film that actually addresses some serious issues alongside its comedy.

In Scott Z. Burns’ adaptation of the book by Kurt Eichenwald, Whitacre at first seems to be genuinely concerned by the price-fixing tied into a new food additive called lysine. (“All America is being swindled before breakfast,” he tsk-tsks.) When the FBI is called in to probe a case of apparent blackmail against ADM, Whitacre gets swept up in the investigation and ultimately volunteers his own misgivings about the company. Envisioning himself as a master spy, he agrees to wear a wire and help expose the multinational firm’s pattern of corruption. What the feds don’t know, however, is that Whitacre himself is deeply embedded in that pattern and has a covert “profit-sharing” plan even the top execs at ADM aren’t aware of.

“Cognitive dissonance” might be the best way to describe Whitacre’s mindset, and Burns’ script reflects that by having his anti-hero narrate the film in a manic stream filled with non-sequiturs. (Talk about unreliable narrators!) Once again proving that truth is stranger than fiction, Whitacre is both a genius and a fool, the kind of contradictory enigma you’d never believe if he weren’t a real person.

Scott Bakula, in an unflattering haircut, plays the Illinois fed who is consistently flummoxed by Whitacre, and Melanie Lynskey (Kate Winslet’s onetime co-star in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures) is endearing as the whistleblower’s loyal wife. In a curious choice, Soderbergh has cast a number of comedians like Joel McHale, Tom Papa, Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins and even The Smothers Brothers in supporting roles, to no discernible purpose. (The droll McHale from cable TV’s “The Soup” is particularly wasted in a very straight FBI role.)

Ultimately, Damon’s first-rate performance as a singular fraud is the best reason to see this missed opportunity of a movie. A better bet, I suspect, is to read the book.