Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! playfully tells the true story of a corporate whistleblower who does a miserable, yet strangely effective, job helping the FBI investigate an international price-fixing scheme. Soderbergh wants to be more funny than dramatic in his depiction of an actual corporate crime that occurred in the 1990s. Thanks to an understated and hilarious performance from Matt Damon, he succeeds.
Damon plays Mark Whitacre, an employee of Archer Daniels Midland, maker of various soybean and food oil products, and one of our nation’s biggest corporations. Whitacre is interviewed by a well-meaning FBI agent (Scott Bakula) about a possible blackmail scheme at ADM. At the urging of his wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), Whitacre decides to let the FBI know about an international price-fixing scheme that’s costing consumers untold amounts of money. The FBI asks Whitacre to help them gather proof, and thus starts one of the stranger stories in American corporate history.
Whitacre really takes to the idea of informing on his bosses and wearing a wire. He fancies himself as some sort of secret agent and naïvely thinks his company will make him president when the dust settles. The way he figures it, nobody will be left standing after all of the corporate criminals are sniffed out, and ADM will need him to crawl out of the rubble and take the company forward.
As history tells us, that didn’t happen. Whitacre eventually went to jail for corporate crimes committed while he was working with the FBI. In fact, his sentence was longer than the executives who were taken down in the price-fixing scheme.
As portrayed by Damon, Whitacre is a classic cinematic buffoon. Damon put on 30 extra pounds for the role and a bad mustache. The extra weight doesn’t necessarily make him look fat … just a little less Matt Damon-y. It also doesn’t qualify as Damon’s most startling physical transformation for a movie role. The man lost 40 pounds to play a drug-addicted soldier in Courage Under Fire.
While the weight gain got a lot of press, it’s Damon’s hilarious voiceover that really makes the movie. Whitacre provides an often trivial commentary, going off the subject and inserting random facts and asides that have nothing to do with what’s happening onscreen. Damon’s Whitacre doesn’t treat the events he’s narrating in the film with any level of seriousness.
The goofy voiceover could be looked at as Soderbergh and Damon satirizing the typical audience handholding that a voiceover often provides when a film is too complicated to be taken at face value. It could also be seen as a tipping of the hat as to the nature of Whitacre’s character. As his lies and deceptions mount, he reveals himself to be an unreliable informant, as well as an unreliable narrator.
Soderbergh wisely casts a lot of comedians in supporting roles. The likes of Joel McHale (The Soup), Andrew Daly (Upright Citizens Brigade), Paul F. Tompkins (Mr. Show), the Smothers Brothers and Tony Hale (Arrested Development) are all required to play it straight. Watching them react to Whitacre’s bizarre antics is a hoot. Seeing all these comedians in the cast helps reinforce the entire situation as a massive comedy of errors. That tone is further helped by the quirky Marvin Hamlisch score, which suggests a sort of ’70s Neil Simon comedy vibe, even though the film is set in the ’90s.
The Informant! is a risky, off-kilter approach to a story that could’ve played out on screen like your average corporate thriller. Leave it to Soderbergh and Damon to find the wicked humor in something that resulted in the largest antitrust fine in U.S. history at the time, and a lot of bilked international consumers. As seen here, Mark Whitacre was a manipulative, sneaky and smug son of a bitch. Thanks to Damon, he’s also a highly entertaining tragicomic figure.