“Four white guys getting together on a weekday - that’s not a business meeting, it’s a crime scene.”
On the surface, The Informant! shouldn’t be a fun movie to watch. It’s about one of the 21st century’s most reliable bad actors: corporate greedheads who think they’re above the law. (In most cases, they’re probably right.) Its story takes place in the 1990s, when business transactions were still conducted face-to-face in conference rooms and executive suites. The characters are forever trudging through airports and whispering conspiratorially in telephones. This is the drabbest world imaginable to set a movie in.
And yet it’s a terrific entertainment. It features Matt Damon’s most chameleon-like performance since The Talented Mr. Ripley, and it zips along thanks to some very funny writing and some very amusing casting choices.
Director Steven Soderbergh, delivering his first good movie since 2005’s Bubble, is working in the deadpan style of a Coen Brothers comedy, like Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading. Unlike a straight corporate thriller like, say, Michael Clayton, the outrage is just below the surface. Soderbergh appears to be following the old adage that if you want to drive out the devil, the best way is to mock him.
The hero (of sorts) is Mark Whitacre, who in the mid-1990s became known as the highest-level American executive ever to turn whistleblower. He worked for Archer Daniels Midland, and started cooperating with the FBI when it was investigating a price-fixing scheme. There’s more to this story, but to reveal exactly what Whitacre was up to would be to spoil the fun. It’s one of those stories that’s only believable because it has the virtue of being true.
Soderbergh tells this story in a witty, tongue-in-cheek way, using an ironically bubbly score and a seemingly random collection of thoughts delivered in voiceover. (Later we learn that Whitacre had bipolar disorder.) Damon gives the man a wide-eyed innocence. He packed on weight for the role, and his jaw always seems to be dropped. His outlook is so imbued with wonder that you almost expect a bluebird to fly in and land on his shoulder. But like Tom Ripley, his sunny disposition masks a cold and calculating personality. This is a very complex character and a great performance.
The dialogue (written by Bourne Ultimatum scribe Scott Z. Burns) sparkles, and it’s delivered by some of today’s most prominent comedians: Patton Oswalt, Joel McHale and Paul F. Tomkins, among others. Quentin Tarantino did something similar in Inglourious Basterds, hiring comedic actors for essentially non-comedic roles. But this strategy is even more effective in The Informant! It’s Soderbergh’s way of letting us in on the joke. And the story of Mark Whitacre is nothing if not a joke, one you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry at.