Marketed with Matt Damon’s exultant, gawping grin jutting from the promotional posters and an exclamation point thrust into the title as befitting a suburban superhero, “The Informant!,” is muckier than its advertising insinuates. By the time the aftermath has settled in this incredulous tale of corn espionage – based on Kurt Eichenwald’s nonfiction expose of the highest ranking corporate whistleblower in U.S. history – Steven Soderbergh has concocted an adroit film with an absorbing slurry of poignancy mixed with the hilarity.
A biochemist by education, Mark Whitacre (Damon) is an emerging executive with agricultural conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland in the fall of 1992. Though he’s mounted the upper echelon of capitalism by his early thirties, in the dull mega-business culture of the bland leading the bland, he’s an unexceptional Midwesterner. With 30 doughy pounds added to Damon’s physique, he walks with an awkward, overcompensating bound. Mark’s suits are tailor made, but apparently not for him, and he wears ties the pattern of a Golden Girl’s blouse; he’s also the type of fellow who keeps his tie tucked under his shoulder harness while he’s driving. His thatch of sandy-blond hair is the consistency of trimmed wheatgrass and his shadowy moustache curls around the edge of his upper lip and droops over the corners of his mouth, just a few forgetful mornings from emerging as a porn stache. There’s an undertone of stiffness in his interaction with co-workers; it’s as though Mark, an academic posing as one of the boys, is continually afraid he’ll be called out for a clumsy golf swing. As a composite, he possesses the genial disposition of Ned Flanders and the stilted countenance of Eddie Murphy’s Mr. White.
When the FBI investigates a groundless blackmailing scheme at the company, Mark is befriended by Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula, looking decidedly Vulcan), and spurred by his wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), to reveal the existence of an international price fixing scheme. Rimmed by unremarkable eyewear, Mark’s eyes wildly flicker as he goes undercover; the corporate manager agrees to be fitted with a wire, obviously enamored with the spy’s life. He globe trots from Tokyo to Zurich to Hawaii, as his deepening surveillance draws out the machinations of the sodium gluconate and lysine cost-controlling cabal.
Damon has emerged as one of the most versatile American actors; he’s comfortable in marquee-topping blockbusters, and tiny indie projects (“Gerry,” “The Brothers Grimm”). He also possesses a fine comic sensibility (“Stuck on You,” “I’m Fucking Matt Damon”). Plainly not shy about discarding his glamorous persona to play Whitacre, Damon mines Mark’s bumbling naivety for laughs. But he’s resolutely adept so that the portrayal doesn’t dissolve into buffoonery despite his character’s healthy dollop of doofus. Damon manages to depict Mark, who is clearly ego boosted by his role as a secret agent, as a well-intentioned goofus without making him derisory, even when the young executive can’t help himself, almost inconceivably, while in crowded boardrooms, from peering unsurreptitiously into lamps fixed with cameras, and fidgeting matter-of-factly with his whirring briefcase recording device.
The seamless direction (Soderbergh also served as the movie’s cinematographer under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) keeps the film skimming as the investigation intensifies. When the offices raids and indictments come down in 1995 – and, ultimately, ADM paid out hundreds of millions in fines and court settlements – Mark remains oblivious, even as his own life becomes more turbid. Almost willfully denying the urgency of his legal and career troubles, Mark boasts and implores in the same breath to his attorney (played by a strong Tony Hale) that “We built the investigation,” the Walter Mitty-like tipster overstating his relationship with the FBI, a team he was never fully a part of and never completely truthful with. Damon is potently effective during the subsequent unraveling.
Soderbergh cleverly accentuates the rueful comic ambience by casting countless comedians in dramatic roles. More than a dozen stand-up comics, writers and improv performers provide strong, decisive portrayals; no punch lines, just impeccable timing. Tom Papa and Rick Overton loom as insufferable ADM honchos, Joel McHale is thoughtfully empathic as Shepard’s partner while Paul F. Tompkins and Patton Oswalt are stolidly stern government investigators. Even the Smothers Brothers are gifted small parts; Tom returns to films after a 20-year absence, Dick makes his first in a decade.
While the Smothers Brothers appear in rare cameos, the assiduous and preeminent Soderbergh has culminated a busy twelve months during which he’s released four distinct films — the two tonally-distinct chapters of “Che” (long but deeply gratifying), “The Girlfriend Experience” (slight but intriguing), and, presently, “The Informant!,” a husky, multilayered and artfully compounded seriocomedy.