“The Informant!” sees director Steven Soderbergh merge the broad appeal of his “Ocean’s 11” series with some of the quirkier aspects of his art house inspired work. He’s always straddled the line between caustic and commercial, making one experimental film for every box office bonanza but this time he’s crafted a movie that should satisfy both film critics who want more of the obtuse “Schizopolis” era Soderbergh and audiences simply looking to be entertained. Call it high end-low brow.
Based on Kurt Eichenwald’s book, “The Informant” is the mostly true tale of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a highly paid executive turned whistle blower at Archer Daniels Midland in the early 1990s. Co-operating with the F.B.I. he helped uncover a price fixing policy which landed several executives (including himself) in jail. While the Ivy Leaguer, who suffers from bi-polar disorder, gathered hundreds of hours of incriminating video and audio tapes, he unwittingly exposed his involvement in another, unrelated corporate scam. As he tries to dig himself out he instead gets buried by his mounting lies.
Ninety percent of Soderbergh’s job on “The Informant!,” where you have a lead character who is meant to be likeable but is actually revealed to be a liar and a thief, was to cast the right people. It can be a tricky balancing act to find an actor who can keep the audience on- board through a tale of corporate malfeasance and personal greed but Matt Damon is the guy. Years ago this role might have been played by Paul Newman, another actor who could span the gap between hero and anti-hero and leave viewers satisfied.
Like Leonardo DiCaprio in “Catch Me If You Can,” another movie about a likeable bad guy, Damon’s history of playing heroes brings with it built in audience acceptance. The casting is quite inspired and allowing Damon to gain a few pounds, rounding out his usually chiseled face and torso, even more so. He becomes the everyman, not the handsome but more unrelatable “Bourne Identity” star.
Damon may head up the cast, but he is ably supported by good work from “Talk Soup’s” Joel McHale and Scott Bakula (why isn’t he in more movies?) as FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard.
The tone of the film is deliberate as Soderbergh walks us through the price fixing set up, layering the story with glib narration from Damon about the minutia of his life. It’s a risky thing and the kind of element the Coens excel at—relating the small details to the larger picture—but Soderbergh’s sure and steady hand guarantees that Damon’s constant and seemingly unconnected stream-of-consciousness voice over enhances the film.
“The Informant!” isn’t Soderbergh’s next “Erin Brockovich.” It’s skewed a tad too far to the art house side of his brain for that, but Damon’s presence keeps this story of accounting, paperwork and avarice interesting.