by Jeff Meyers
Is there a style of film Steven Soderbergh won't try? Stepping away from low-budget, cinematic doodads like The Girlfriend Experience, Bubble and Che, the jack-of-all-genres gets back onto the Hollywood track, delivering an audience-friendly tale of corporate greed and conspiracy that still benefits from his artistically eccentric inclinations.
Breezy, goofy and bizarre in a way only real-life tales can be, The Informant! earns its exclamation point with absurd plot twists and a sublimely nerdy performance by Matt Damon. Though it rarely scores the big laughs, the story constantly surprises and amuses.
Based on Kurt Eichenwald's nonfiction bestseller, the film follows Mark Whitacre (Damon), a toupeed Ned Flanders-like VP at Archer-Daniels-Midland who, during a minor investigation with the FBI, spills the beans on his company's participation in a global price-fixing conspiracy. Mark is quickly recruited to wear a wire and turn whistleblower, a role he comes to zealously embrace. Deluding himself that he's a character in a Michael Crichton novel, his behavior and lies become increasingly bizarre, leading to unexpected revelations about the man who would go on to be the highest-ranking executive in U.S. history to turn state's evidence on his own company.
Damon brilliantly rides the line between supreme confidence, earnest motivation and profound imbecility, delivering a steady stream of internal monologues that are as disconnected from reality as they are hilarious. As the plot thickens, Whitacre's musings become weirder and weirder, betraying the true state of his psyche.
Soderbergh keeps the tone light and style ironical, only occasionally letting his fleet-footed pace flag. Unfortunately, his satire misses the forest for the trees by focusing its latter half on Whitacre's pathologies. His attack on the corporate malfeasance of ADM lacks focus or bite and so the film feels insubstantial. It's a surprising misstep when you consider the expert balancing act of character and issue he showed in Erin Brockovich.
The film boasts a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek score by Marvin Hamlisch and Smothers Brothers cameos. With Damon heading the cast and inspired lunacy at every turn, this true-life shaggy-dog tale of American greed and dysfunction is highly entertaining.