Most of the time I like Steven Soderbergh’s movies and The Informant! does not disappoint. Matt Damon is great playing Mark Whitacre, the real life informant of the title. As with some of Soderbergh’s best films there is a lot of ambiguity about his hero. Whitacre comes into this film as a smarter than average scientist working for Archer Daniels Midland, the people who brought us corn in all its best derivatives, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and for the purposes of this movie, lysine. When the opportunity presents itself, he seems to be genuinely interested in helping the FBI get to the bottom of a price fixing scheme there and in the capacity of undercover informant, he plays 0014 — twice as smart as 007, he says — and gets loads of incriminating tapes. But things soon spin out of control for him and the more we learn about him the more loony the whole story gets.
The Informant! is “based on a true story“ and you have to wonder how far they went with the cinematic license. Whitacre was no doubt a bit outside the bookends, a liar and a character, but the story of the FBI and the Justice Department giving the Informant a tougher time than the Corporation while treated in a very comic manner, is pretty hard to take.
Soderbergh has done in this film what Tarantino failed at so miserably for me with Inglourious Basterds; he uses the language of film, the Marvin Hamlisch score and the visuals of another time, to tell a really good story. His use of music at just the right moments and camera style is brilliant. And it is very funny. Damon does this character proud, though I am not sure he really had to don the bad toupee and gain 30 pounds. Whitacre seems at times so sincere and then you find out there is just a bit more he didn’t share. From the beginning, you know there is something just a smidge off about him, but Damon plays him right on the edge the whole way. His interior monologue with timely pop references and great trivia is a wonderful character device as well. The supporting cast, especially Melanie Lynskey (Two and a Half Men wacky neighbor Rose) as his wife and Scott Bakula as the FBI agent who is his main contact, are pitch perfect.
I was with this film from start to finish and laughed out loud at times; on another level though, it is a tragic American tale where the corporation gets by with screwing the little guy. But make no mistake, it is a comedy and the absurdity of it messes with you. Go, see, laugh!
And here’s an article on the real story of the Informant!