The Informant! is the true(ish) story of Mark Whitacre, the highest ranking whistleblower in corporate history. Mark (Damon) is a biochemist who has been promoted to the heady heights of agricultural giant ADM’s corporate infrastructure. But when his division loses money for a record year, he pretends that a Japanese competitor has infected ADM’s corn stock, and before he knows it the FBI is involved. Mark is clearly not a man who thinks his decisions through very carefully – he is one of those polite and hopelessly naïve Americans that we don’t see enough of outside the US – and so he decides to tell Agent Shepherd (Bakula) about ADM’s involvement in one of the largest global price-fixing scandals in corporate history.
What follows is basically what The Insider would have looked like if Mel Brooks owned the rights. Mark agrees to wear a wire in order to incriminate the top executives at ADM, but he is so childishly excited about his foray into espionage that he never stops to think about what he is getting himself into. But the tables turn swiftly when ADM’s lawyers discover Mark has been skimming money from the company profits, and the FBI decides to sideline the ADM case and go after Mark instead!
This film easily fulfils, but never really exceeds, expectations. It is certainly not a genre-defying, complex, caustic comedy about the global agri-industry; but it is another fairly successful outing for Stephen Soderbergh and his pals George Clooney (who executive produced the picture) and Matt Damon. It shares with the ‘Oceans’ films an effortlessly well-paced and uplifting tone that only comes about through a sort of synergy when an experienced, confident, and supremely talented filmmaker like Soderbergh decides to let his hair down with a few trusted friends and remind himself how much fun filmmaking can be. The fact that the ‘friends’ who decided to join in are two of the most globally renowned actors in history certainly can’t have hurt either.
Matt Damon may have achieved international fame in the Bourne films, and critical acclaim working with directors like Gus Van Sant and Martin Scorsese, but rare appearances on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and Entourage (not to mention his friendship with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone) prove that he is also an incredibly astute and underrated comic actor who knows how to make fun out of himself. This film will hopefully broadcast this hidden talent to a global audience. His performance is slick and understated; he is never brash or knowingly ‘comic’ (a refreshing quality after so many years of Ferrell, Stiller, Rogen, et al) and he maintains that slightly dim, Middle American charm that effortlessly radiates from his calm, ‘farm boy’ physique. I am always amazed by how easy it is to overlook the fact that Damon is actually an Oscar-winning screenwriter from Boston; his demeanour and physiology are so fresh and agrarian that one almost wishes he was more like Private Ryan.
This may not be the most tightly honed comedy script in recent years, and I must admit that it is one of those films where the trailer is funnier than the actual film. When the court case gets under way the story becomes a bit heavy handed and loses some of the snappy pace and fleet-footed dialogue that defines the rest of the script. But if this was the sort of film where every last moment was painstakingly thought out to avoid stagnancy, then it wouldn’t be the sort of film that allowed Soderbergh and Damon to enjoy themselves and create such a thoroughly entertaining and raucous insight into their famous friendship; and I for one am willing to overlook the hiccups and slow-points in this generally well paced and thoroughly enjoyable film.
If anybody was looking forward to Steven Soderbergh’s cutting, fictional attack on the corn industry (similar to Linklater’s fantastic rebuke to cattle rearing in ‘Fast Food Nation’) then they will be disappointed. This film only touches very lightly on the ‘corn’ issue in America (in case you didn’t know, every American is eating far more corn than they should be because the US government has been over-subsidising corn production at an unsustainable level since World War 2). Similarly, if anybody was looking for a deep, three-dimensional character study of a torn soul stuck in the heart of a giant US corporation (à la The Insider) then they will leave unfulfilled. The script prioritises laughs ahead of depth of emotion in almost every instance; and while there is pathos by the bucket load, we can’t ever really say we care about Whitacre. If, on the other hand, you arrive at the cinema looking forward to a frivolous, expertly produced, and very funny movie with a few cracking performances, then I think you might just be in luck.