Tales of corporate greed and espionage are rarely as fresh and boisterous as Steven Soderbergh’s — director of “Ocean’s Eleven” — new film “The Informant!” Although the exclamation mark seems a bit silly, it is a necessary addendum to the film’s title, obligatorily expressing the film’s inherent zaniness. But don’t let the seemingly lighthearted aura fool you — “The Informant!” contains many layers of depth, delving into the psyche of a compulsive liar.
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Matt Damon (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) packs on a few pounds to play the aforementioned fibber, Mark Whitacre, who is a high-ranking executive at agricultural powerhouse Archer Daniels Midland. Despite enjoying the spoils of a cushy career, he begins to tattle to the FBI about his company’s association in a massive price-fixing conspiracy. Whitacre even begins to wear a wire for the feds in hopes of implicating his superiors and taking over the company, but his squealing only snowballs into a never-ending landslide of lies as he perpetually deceives his company, the FBI and even himself.
After witnessing Whitacre’s incessant dishonesty, a certain question surfaces: How could someone in his right mind get tangled in such a web of deception? As the film suggests, Whitacre wasn’t in his right mind. Dispersed throughout the movie are glimpses into Whitacre’s tumultuous psyche; his random, rambling (yet occasionally insightful) inner thoughts pop up intermittently. His mind is occupied by mostly irrelevant observations — at a business meeting, he is more concerned about the pattern on a man’s tie than the complex deal being outlined. In addition to being uproariously funny, these bits hint that Whitacre may have been slightly delusional and disconnected from reality. These short scenes serve as an attempt to explain his unrelenting deception.
The voiceover narration segments also assist in maintaining the film’s quick, jolly pace. Typically dull moments, such as shots of people walking or landscapes, become hysterical when injected with Whitacre’s inane prattles. Unfortunately, this momentum isn’t sustained to the fairly dull climax, as the wackiness wears off and Whitacre’s constant scamming becomes more irritating than comical.
Still, the film avoids a complete cinematic implosion mostly due to its steady stream of newly arriving supporting characters. Soderbergh smartly fills out the cast with a cavalry of some of the industry’s most underrated comic talent. Joel McHale (TV’s “Community”) plays an FBI agent working with Whitacre, Tony Hale (TV’s “Arrested Development”) plays Whitacre’s lawyer and Patton Oswalt (“Big Fan”) plays an FBI investigator. Sci-fi legend Scott Bakula (TV’s “Quantum Leap”), also acts in this film, shining as Whitacre’s FBI handler as one of the film’s strongest performances.
Even Matt Damon is stellar, revealing an uncanny knack for comedy seen previously in the “Ocean’s” movies. This time, however, there’s no Brad Pitt or George Clooney to share the spotlight, allowing Damon to forge a career-defining performance. The brilliance of Damon’s acting is underscored by his ability to take a fairly sleazy trickster with a long list of wrongdoings — embezzling money and lying to the government, for starters — and make the audience root for his well-being and happiness. With a bristly mustache, chubby cheeks and a cornucopia of one-liners, Damon allows us to ignore Whitacre’s unwavering self-interest and embrace his goofiness.
Decorated with flowery titles and featuring a jaunty score that sounds like ’70s cop show music (think “Starsky and Hutch”), “The Informant!” has a retro feel perfect for a comedy set in the 1990s. Based on real events, the film has been aptly released at a time of great corporate distrust, making Mark Whitacre a modern anti-hero for taking down his company’s corrupt practices (while still skimming some profits off the top).