Matt Damon plays oddball whistleblower in offbeat docudrama
Comic exposé, gonzo docudrama, mashed-up portrait of a messed-up guy—it’s not easy to classify The Informant! And that, as it turns out, is probably part of the point.
Marketed (more or less) as a “different” kind of comedy, the new Steven Soderbergh film has a hot-button subject (corporate whistleblower) and a semi-disguised leading man (Matt Damon, looking pudgy, nerdy and cheerfully uncool). It teases us with the possibility that it might be a comical variation on The Insider or a farcical inversion of the Bourne movies. And by the end it’s looking a little like Catch Me If You Can re-made as absurdist psychodrama.
All of those reference points have at least some pertinence for viewers of The Informant! But ultimately they matter only as transitory touchstones for the film’s intriguingly ambivalent style. This, after all, is a whistleblower story (based on the real-life case of executive/biochemist Mark Whitacre and the Archer Daniels Midland company) in which the key figure proves both extraordinarily cooperative and extravagantly unreliable.
Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns wait until the end of their film to point out that Whitacre actually ended up getting a larger prison sentence than did the corporate big-wigs whose malfeasance he exposed. But that bit of historical fact is just one of several abiding ironies at the end of an unexpectedly trenchant portrait of American character amid the big-bucks frenzies of the 1990s.
Whitacre’s enigmatic blend of heroic earnestness and baffling self-delusion is the film’s real subject—and its best reason for telling his story in a manner that swivels back and forth between gloomy farce and dead-pan social document. The bizarre and ironic outcomes of Whitacre’s actions provide emphatic punctuation to an emerging picture not just of Whitacre himself, but also of a corporate culture in which even the best of intentions are undermined by contradictions and deceptions from within.
Damon’s performance as a quixotic crusader and middle-American dupe is quietly and amusingly persuasive throughout. The character’s offbeat combination of brainy guile and naïve idealism get variously echoed in some of the secondary characters, including especially Whitacre’s wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), and FBI agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula), both of whom are crucial but mostly unwitting enablers for Whitacre’s peculiar exploits.
The end result here is more “art film” than mainstream entertainment. The unusual angle of approach is both a problem and a point of real interest. But The Informant! is not for film buffs only—playing along with this movie’s oddball games can get you to a more illuminating place than most of us could have expected in advance.