Novelist Mary McCarthy once remarked of playwright Lillian Hellman, “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” In the satirical docudrama The Informant!, Matt Damon plays an erratic white-collar turncoat with a similarly butterfingered grasp on the truth.
Biochemist Mark Whitacre not only became the youngest vice president at agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, but he’s also considered the highest-level executive-turned-whistle-blower in U.S. history. Usually Hollywood docudramas turn such individuals into salt-of-the-earth Davids who challenge corporate Goliaths. Director Steven Soderbergh took a whack at the crusading underdog genre with the Oscar-winning Erin Brockovich. With The Informant!, however, Soderbergh turns the genre inside out to find the humor in Whitacre’s character flaws, rather than lionize his contributions to the cause of justice. Damon’s lively character sketch anchors the peculiar, half-successful endeavor.
As Whitacre, Damon sports glasses, a prickly mustache and extra pounds that make him look more like Philip Seymour Hoffman than Jason Bourne. Throughout the film we’re privy to Whitacre’s thoughts, which mostly consist of inane non sequiturs such as, “This would be a great place for some outlet stores” or “I like my hands. I think they’re my favorite part of my body.” Whitacre’s inner life seems staggeringly banal, but in his case, stupid waters run deep.
During a minor corporate crisis in 1992, Whitacre makes vague allegations involving a Japanese blackmailer and a corporate mole. FBI special agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) takes the case, and the executive’s wife (Heavenly Creatures’ Melanie Lynskey) pushes Whitacre to make a difficult admission. Lest Shepard’s wiretap discover the truth, Whitacre volunteers that he’s part of ADM’s international price-fixing scam with its competitors.
To build a case against ADM, Shepard recruits Whitacre as the most jittery, unreliable stool pigeon imaginable. While wearing a wire at the office, he narrates his mundane activities and awkwardly pumps his co-workers for evidence. In a funny running joke, he compares real legal skullduggery to the thrillers of Michael Crichton or John Grisham. Whitacre’s incompetence with corporate espionage drives Shepard to distraction: “Who did you tell about the raid?” “Well, I had to tell my secretary.” Then the government team discovers Whitacre’s up to his neck in other extralegal activities.
The Informant!'s filmmakers seem to have little confidence in the material as comedy. Frequently Soderbergh lards the soundtrack with obtrusively wacky music along the lines of early Woody Allen comedies, until you feel like he’s blowing duck calls in your ear. The film’s shaky tone finds its footing in its second half, when the legal wheels start rolling. Frequently, responsible grown-ups like Whitacre’s harried lawyer (“Arrested Development’s” hilariously harried Tony Hale) patiently explain his best interests and practically beg him to stay on-script — and then Whitacre does pretty much the opposite. Patton Oswalt, both Smothers brothers and other comic actors provide amusing details in the film’s margins.
The Informant!’s landscape of golf courses and Econo Lodges suggests that corporate chicanery can be utterly commonplace, while legal snafus convey the difficulty of flawed humans making a successful federal case. Primarily, though, the film’s point appears to be to hold Whitacre up to ridicule. The real Whitacre, however, seems too complicated to deserve such irreverent treatment. Bourne Ultimatum co-writer Scott Z. Burns adapted the screenplay based on Kurt Eichenwald’s book. It’s worth pointing out that other accounts, such as James B. Leiber’s Rats in the Grain, portray Whitacre in a more positive light. Damon’s enthusiastic, change-of-pace performance elevates The Informant! as big-screen entertainment, even though the film may not do justice to the whole truth.
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