Ann Hornaday Movie Review: Soderbergh and Damon's Darkly Funny 'Informant'

Matt Damon stars in Steven Soderbergh's based-on-a-true-story comedy about a vice-president at an agri-business company who becomes an FBI informant. Video by Warner Bros.
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 2009

With composure so out of fashion these days in the public square, Steven Soderbergh's adamantly restrained "The Informant!" arrives like a cleansing tonic. Soderbergh has always approached his films, even the most quirkily experimental, with a degree of remoteness that has sometimes veered into bloodlessness. But, at a time when passions are running so ubiquitously and insanely high, his dedication to dispassion feels downright revolutionary.

The eccentricity, experimentation and sheer chops that have come to define Soderbergh's best work all come to bear on "The Informant!," a smart, funny, off-handedly efficient corporate-espionage thriller. Based on the true story of a whistle-blower at mega-food purveyor Archer Daniels Midland, told by business reporter Kurt Eichenwald in his 2000 book of the same name, "The Informant!" adds a crucial piece of punctuation to the title. With it comes a deadpan sensibility that takes what might more obviously have been a sober procedural -- or, more likely in today's climate, a febrile, full-throated screed -- and turns it into a low-key, idiosyncratic experiment in style, narrative and screen comedy itself.

At the center of it all is Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), who seems determined to unseat the likes of Huckleberry Finn and Humbert Humbert as the world's most unreliable narrator. As "The Informant!" opens in the early 1990s, Whitacre -- a brilliant biochemist who has risen to the top ranks of ADM's corporate office in Decatur, Ill. -- is informing his bosses of a plot to blackmail the company for $10 million. The ADM brass goes to the FBI, and soon a special agent is installing a phone tap at Whitacre's McMansion. "Are you going to say something or am I?" Whitacre's wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), nervously asks her husband as the agent is leaving.

Say what about which to whom? That is the question that drives the rest of "The Informant!," which becomes only more deeply, darkly funny as Whitacre gets in further over his well-meaning, ever-swelling head. When the FBI enlists Whitacre to help them investigate his employers for a massive price-fixing conspiracy, he jumps into his role with gusto, loudly announcing his every move into his hidden microphone ("Seven-thirty a.m. I am approaching the entrance to the office. Entrance breached.").

With an added 30 pounds, wire-rimmed glasses and a truly embarrassing mustache, Damon delivers his best Philip Seymour Hoffman imitation as Whitacre in a performance that strikes the precise balance between guile and innocence that the role demands. It was crucial that Whitacre be played by an actor with Damon's likability and charm -- otherwise, why care about a man whose sunny self-deception increasingly takes on the contours of pathological delusion?

In a fascinating move, Soderbergh surrounds Damon with a supporting cast of stand-up comedians (you can glimpse Patton Oswalt in some scenes, as well as Tommy and Dick Smothers in virtually unrecognizable cameos). The gifted comic actor Scott Bakula and "The Soup" host Joel McHale play the special agents who run Whitacre's "undercover" operation. But with the deck so suitably stacked for laughs, Soderbergh fakes left and directs them to play it utterly straight, taking the notion of comedy past irony and straight into its most meta-level.

In fact, it would be interesting to watch "The Informant!" with the sound off, to get a sense of how Soderbergh plays image against sound to create the movie's unorthodox brand of humor. As with his last two projects, the "Che" films and "The Girlfriend Experience," Soderbergh filmed "The Informant!" on the Red Camera, a digital system that is lightweight, nimble and particularly well-suited to filming without added lights. The result with "The Informant!" is a desaturated palette and spontaneous style that recall movies made in the 1970s. (In many of the scenes, the protagonists are backlit by blurry, unruly flares of light -- shots that most directors would reject as unusable. But Soderbergh embraces what might be considered a technical flaw and makes it a design element.)

It's an unshowy, workaday look that is completely at odds with what filmgoers hear on "The Informant!'s" soundtrack, dominated by Marvin Hamlisch's lush, swelling musical score. With its old-school orchestrations and exuberant evocation of Henry Mancini and other greats, Hamlisch's music becomes a character in itself, often providing the sole emotional key to scenes that would otherwise be dully routine.

As important as Hamlisch's score is Whitacre's voice-over narration, delivered by Damon in a chirpy stream-of-consciousness that pings crazily from corn chemistry to Japanese sex fetishes to the relative merits of Oscar de la Renta and Brioni ties. Whitacre's nonstop interior monologue accounts for nearly all of "The Informant!'s" bent humor ("The Informant!" was adapted by screenwriter Scott Z. Burns). "I could see us fishing, or whatever," Whitacre says to himself dreamily after meeting Bakula's Agent Brian Shepard. "He's a good listener."

Soderbergh is a good listener, too, always alert to the myriad ways his characters reveal, conceal and finally betray themselves in thought, word and deed. But if he's a discreet confessor, he's not a terribly emotionally invested one. Some viewers might find that detachment frustrating, but they should realize that Soderbergh simply pays them the supreme compliment of trusting them to arrive at their own moral conclusions. At a time when rage is all the rage, that trust may not be entirely deserved; for his part, Soderbergh can at least be credited for keeping a cool head when all around him are losing theirs.

The Informant! (108 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity.

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