The Informant! is director Steven Soderbergh's most entertaining and effective feature since 2001's Ocean's Eleven. At the turn of the past decade, in a four-year stretch that produced Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and finally Ocean's Eleven, Soderbergh emerged as perhaps the medium's most artful hit-maker. Then — Ocean's sequels aside — he mostly withdrew, embracing digital video and experimentation in a series of lesser-seen art films such as Bubble, the two-part Che, and The Girlfriend Experience.
In this context, The Informant! comes across as a successful union of these two periods in Soderbergh's filmography: It's an entertaining star-driven vehicle with frequent collaborator Matt Damon in the lead but also an odd, modest film shot on cheap-looking digital video.
The look of the film bothered me in the trailer. It is a visual medium after all, so movies should look as good as the creators have the ability and means to make them. And there's no limitation on cost and talent when it comes to a Soderbergh/Damon vehicle. But in context, the shabby photographic texture matches the intentionally shabby production design of a film set largely in mid-size Midwestern towns in the '90s, in ugly offices with boxy computers, in anonymous hotel rooms.
Based on a true story told in writer Kurt Eichenwald's 2000 book of the same title, The Informant! is about corporate whistleblower Mark Whitacre (Damon), a trained biochemist who moved over to the business side and worked his way up the executive ladder at Archer Daniels Midland, the agribusiness giant where "corn goes in one end and profit comes out the other."
Early in the film, Whitacre tells his employers of a corporate espionage plot and extortion attempt he's uncovered. The bosses bring in the FBI to investigate, and Whitacre corners one of them to reveal an illegal price-fixing scheme involving the company and some of their international competitors, turning an anxious but eager Whitacre into a government informant secretly taping meetings.
Damon reportedly gained 30 pounds for the role, and his paunch, big glasses, bushy mustache, heavy toupee, and print ties make him something of a poster boy for Midwestern lame.
In a lesser film — say, Alexander Payne's Nebraska-set About Schmidt — middle American grotesquerie could be the subject itself. But The Informant! works through this, getting the audience on Whitacre's side, rooting for him.
Smartly, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns concoct a voiceover narration for Whitacre, a rat-a-tat-tat stream of consciousness where we hear how he thinks: flossing in the shower can add up to significant time savings and how the metric system never caught on except for the liter bottle because "it's a nicer name than a quart."
Whitacre may look like a doofus, but he's a smart, thoughtful guy even though his musings stray into weird territory (whose don't?). Or, so we think. As the plot unspools, what we think we know about Whitacre and his situation begins to unravel. Things go all screwy in funny, compelling ways, and it becomes clear that the target of the comedy here is as much the audience as it is Whitacre.
Soderbergh lets Archer Daniels Midland (which did pay a $100 million price-fixing fine and send three executives to prison) off the hook a bit. The ramifications of corporate malfeasance are hugely important, but that's not what this movie's about: It's a sly, brainy, convoluted lark. As a star-driven comic thriller, it's essentially an inverted, shaggy-dog answer to Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich. As a story about corporate whistleblowing, it's The Insider played as squirrelly comedy. Soderbergh tips his hand in the casting, with ostensibly straight supporting roles played by professional comedians from such sources as 30 Rock, Arrested Development, and The Soup. One Smothers brother is a judge, another plays a corporate heavyweight, last seen laughing in character but also seemingly with and partly at the audience.