The Informant!: Corporate Crime Has Never Been So Funny
Steven Soderbergh has pulled off a delicate balancing act with The Informant!, his newest film– he manages to satirize corporate crime without any preachiness. It’s a 1970s style character study meeting with broad farce. Soderbergh keeps the mostly true plot kicking along with irreverent narration by our untrustworthy protagonist and a bouncy Marvin Hamlisch score, and the end result is one of the funnier movies of the year. Matt Damon does his best work to date, in a performance reminiscent of Jack Lemmon, and Soderbergh shows that once again, his best work comes from working within the studio system… this is his best movie since Traffic.
Damon plays Mark Whitacre, an executive at Archer Daniels Midland, a food-processing conglomerate. After getting involved with the FBI on an attempt to stop an outsider from blackmailing the company, Whitacre is pushed by his wife (Melanie Lynskey) into telling FBI agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) the truth about ADM– they’ve been fixing prices in the international lysine market. Agent Shepard and his partner, Agent Herndon (Joel McHale) jump at this opportunity to take down the crooks in a major corporate crime, and immediately put their trust in Whitacre, who sticks his neck out at great risk to himself, his family, and his way of life. There’s one big problem, however– Whitacre is a compulsive liar, and despite his good work in the field wearing a wire, time and time again his deceptions and delusions of grandeur make the agent ask… what in the world is wrong with this guy?
The take on this story is really where the film went right– Soderbergh decided instead of taking this in the direction of the usual corporate crime thriller (The Insider, etc.) to make it into a farce. Inspired move, Mr. Soderbergh, as I’ve never seen a film quite like this one before. It manages to make fun of the decisions Whitacre makes without ever being fully unsympathetic. Damon’s performance treats Whitacre as a quirky Ohioan everyman, whose mind wanders and who has big dreams. I have no doubts that the real Mark Whitacre felt the same way about himself before everything started to fall apart– the movie rings true, which is a remarkable feat when the events seem outrageous and the Marvin Hamlisch score sets a broad comedy tone.
It’s taken me a while to figure out exactly how to convey why this movie works as well as it does. Soderbergh took the subject of corporate crime, which is not funny, and a protagonist who in the end is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which also is not funny… and decided to try to make it funny. He cast many stand-up comedians (Paul F. Tompkins, Richard Daley, Patton Oswalt, Tom Papa) in small roles, added a farcical score, and turned the entire system into a big comedy of errors. There’s a commitment to the vision and a sure-handed execution by Soderbergh that make the whole affair compelling and warm. Finally, there’s Damon, who we find ourselves liking despite his lunacy. It’s the most fleshed-out, full-blooded performance of his career, and one would hope there’s an Oscar nomination in the works. He carries the film, gets big laughs, and at the end, even when his delusions of grandeur have destroyed his own life, we still are utterly drawn in. It’s as smart and ably executed a comedy as we’re liable to see all year long.