Imagine The Insider as directed by the Coen Brothers and you might get a good understanding of what to expect from The Informant!. Shot through with a bemused tone, The Informant! is a film that revels in the absurdities of people. But unlike a Coen Brothers film, The Informant! feels like it has genuine love for many of its characters, even the central figure of Mark Whitacre.



Played by Matt Damon with a paunch and a ridiculous mustache that makes
him look like a Bruce McCulloch character, Whitacre is an upper
management guy at Archer Daniel Midlands, an agri-business titan. When
he gets in the middle of what appears to be corporate sabotage and
blackmail, Whitacre decides that the unsavory business practices at ADM
are too much for him, and he goes to the FBI to rat about price fixing.
But what could have been a tense bit of business skullduggery slowly
turns into farce as Whitacre’s stories, and Whitacre himself, slowly
unravel.



What’s brilliant about the way that Soderbergh directs Scott Z Burns’
script based on Kurt Eichenwald’s novel is that while the film’s
‘twist’ is handily given away in the commercials and trailers – that
Whitacre is a nutcase and is himself balls-deep in fraud and
embezzlement – that ‘reveal’ still plays like gangbusters. Soderbergh
brings you into the life (but never the head – more on that in a
moment) of Whitacre and sort of slow-roasts you in his goofiness. Damon
and Soderbergh play Whitacre perfectly so that the audience is slowly
disarmed, allowing us to get shocked by events in the third act.



Whitacre’s a complex character, and a question that hangs over the
movie is how much he himself even knows what’s quite going on.
Soderbergh brings us into this disconnect in Whitacre’s brain with a
brilliant voice over conceit – whenever a situation gets heavy, or
whenever we might have a chance to understand where Whitacre is coming
from, we’re treated to Whitacre’s internal monologue, which is always
about utterly mundane things like ties and briefcases and home values.
The guy fixates on these material aspects of the world, and just as he
uses belongings as a barrier, so his monologues about them keep us at a
distance.



The role is a subtly tough one to play. Damon spends most of the film
balancing buffoonery and sympathy, which is hard in and of itself, but
at the end he needs to actually make us feel for this lying, cheating,
possibly sociopathic little weirdo, and he manages to hit it perfectly.
While there’s a distinct Coen feel to The Informant! it’s
the way Damon and Soderbergh treat Whitacre that makes it so different
from their work. The Coens never fail to find the absurdity and
pettiness in all humans, while Damon and Soderbergh never fail to find
the humanity in this absurd and petty person.



Damon’s performance, in fact, feels like one that should get an Oscar
but will get snubbed. He’s just too funny, and while he is allowed some
small emotion at the end, the film steadfastly keeps us away from the
interior of Whitacre. It’s a performance that isn’t showy, that isn’t
dazzling in the ‘here’s an obvious Oscar clip!’ sense. It’s a
performance that is remarkable for the way it balances the ridiculous
and the real.



He’s surrounded by other terrific performers as well. Soderbergh’s done
something interesting with the smaller roles: he’s packed them with
comics, all playing straight. Scott Adsit, Alan Havey, Patton Oswalt,
Joel McHale, Tony Hale, Bob Zany, Paul F Tompkins, the Smothers
Brothers… all show up, and none have traditional comic moments. It’s
a great device that works to remind us that the reality can be funnier
and stranger than  the comedy.



Beyond that Soderbergh gives Scott Bakula a huge career boost. The former Quantum Leaper and Captain of the Enterprise
plays an FBI agent who is at first Whitacre’s confidant and then his
enemy; Bakula brings a terrific sense of authority that Damon gets to
stymie and exasperate again and again. In another version of this,
where Whitacre is a real hero and a sort of rebel who doesn’t fit in
the corporate mold, Bakula plays the harsh, humorless authoritarian who
Whitacre gets to humiliate again and again. That isn’t the Soderbergh
version of the story, but you sense that it sort of is the Whitacre version of the story, another movie playing out in his head on a different level.



Also great in a supporting role is the lovely Melanie Lynskey, playing
Whitacre’s put-upon wife, Ginger. It’s sort of a thankless role, as the
wife is even more on the outside of Whitacre than we are, and Ginger is
a character who exists only to reflect off of Whitacre. But Lynskey
manages to give her real depth and never descends into teary eyed
annoyance.



There’s a final supporting player who must be mentioned: Marvin
Hamlisch. When I saw the composer’s name turn up in the credits I was
surprised, as I thought the guy was dead. I assumed Soderbergh had gone
all Tarantino and had used needle drops, but it turns out that Hamlisch
is alive and well and still has the magic, even if the magic is way out
of step with where Hollywood is today. But that’s what makes his
jaunty, retro score so absolutely perfect for this movie; from the
first opening notes of Hamlisch’s score the tone of The Informant! is laid out perfectly, giving you the map of the ride to come.



There’s a second act lull in the film that really hurts; Soderbergh
allows Whitacre’s slow dissolution to be a little too slow, and there’s
a point where you start to wonder just where the heck the movie thinks
it’s going. That’s at least partially on purpose – Whitacre worked with
the FBI for years before bringing the price fixing case to trial – but
even if on purpose it doesn’t make the lull any easier. Judicious
editing at this stage would have given the film more momentum and led
to less wheel-spinning.



But even that complaint is a fairly minor one. The Informant!
isn’t a classic but it’s a wonderfully smart and funny movie that
manages to surprise even when you see things coming. It’s amazing that
we have this film and The Girlfriend Experience in one
year from Soderbergh; I’ve been wondering what it is that keeps me from
loving Soderbergh as unconditionally as I love other directors, and
I’ve come to the conclusion that his greatest strength – the way that
he effortlessly jumps between genres and styles – is what keeps me at a
distance. I never feel like I get to know the real Soderbergh, like
every new film is an enjoyable facade. I wonder if that isn’t what drew
him to the story of inveterate liar Mark Whitacre, a man who kept
hiding himself even from himself. Who is the real Mark Whitacre, deep
inside? Who is the real Soderbergh, deep inside? I don’t know that I’ll
ever know.

8.5 out of 10