There’s something fascinating lingering under the surface of Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, The Informant!. Based on the true story of ADM Vice President Mark Whitacre and his role in the uncovering of the ADM price-fixing scandal, it’s plot lends itself easily into the thriller genre. Yet, Soderbergh seems to do everything within his ability to make the film seem whimsical and absurd. Led by a superb performance by Matt Damon, The Informant! pulls off this experiment pleasantly, and still has room to be exceptionally stylish.
Mark Whitacre (Damon) is a well-liked member of upper-management within Archer Daniels Midland, which is a conglomerate that produces grains, and is involved in nearly everything we use in our everyday life. Mark was a former bio-chemist, and is now living a life of luxury in a large Illinois farm house, with his lovely wife Ginger (Melanie Lynsky) and their adopted children. He has no qualms with his more beneficial position, even if it does expose him to the more unattractive aspects of the business world.
When one of Mark’s plants isn’t producing to the tune of what it’s supposed to, he goes to his colleagues to tell them that he is receiving cryptic phone calls from a man who wishes to extort money from ADM, in exchange for the identity of a man who may be a mole within the company and sabotaging the plant’s production. Weary, but out of superior options, one of the company heads Mick (Tom Papa), informs Mark that they will allow the FBI to help with the investigation to discover who is making the phone calls. Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) visits Mark’s home, and explains that they will tap his phones, which makes Mark all kinds of anxious.
Goaded by Ginger, Mark begins to confess to Shepard that he has been involved in a price-fixing scandal with ADM. Mark agrees to cooperate with Shepard and the FBI in helping them convict Mick and the other company heads in their illegal activity–in exchange for some immunity of his own. Mark agrees to wear a wire, and construct taped meetings wherein he will attempt to capture the company heads plainly discussing their wrongdoings. Problems arise though, when Mark proves not to be the most dependable or honest person, and seems more interested in his own well-being within the company than persecuting the bad guys.
I’m not sure what Soderbergh’s motivations were when he decided to take the somewhat tragic tale of Mark Whitacre and turn it into a farce; nor am I positive that this route was the best way to tell this story. What is obvious is that Soderbergh had no interest in taking the plight of Mark Whitacre seriously. That’s evidenced by the employment of numerous comedians in small parts (Papa, as well as Patton Oswalt & Paul F. Tompkins, among others) and a preposterous (though effective) musical score by Marvin Hamlisch which conjures more thoughts of Get Smartthan a corporate thriller.
Soderbergh’s madness pays off for the most part, though. The Mark Whitacre we see in The Informant! is a disturbed man, rolling off lie after lie to the point where he almost has no choice but to believe his own falsehoods. Soderbergh has no interest in telling his story through the complex plot devices he usually utilizes in his films. Instead, he makes mincemeat of the film’s potential gravitas, and capitalizes on the story’s ludicrous turns for laughs. This is something that is difficult to execute, and even harder to appreciate.
Though it must be said that none of Soderbergh’s work would have been worthwhile without the stunning work from Matt Damon. There’s something deeper to this performance than just the humor, though it is very funny. Sporting a few extra pounds and a thin, bristly mustache, Damon plays Whitacre like he’s the only guy who isn’t in on the joke, and without his sincere portrayal, the audience would be unable to generate any sympathy. It’s stunning that Jason Bourne has delivered such a beautifully delivered Everyman performance.
In the end, Mark Whitacre’s evidence lead to the conviction of the heads of ADM. Unfortunately, it was discovered that Whitacre himself was embezzling money, to the tune of over $10 million. When it was all said and done, Whitacre ended up spending more time in prison than anybody else at ADM. It’s a fitting, if not heartbreaking conclusion to the madcap investigation, but if the title suggests anything, it’s that this film puts a whole lot of thought into punctuation.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh