Last year at this time, the Coen Brothers were treating (or mistreating, depending on one's point of view) audiences with their off-kilter Burn After Reading, a dark comedy flexing a quirky brand of lunacy not usually seen in comparable American fare. Like the Coens, Steven Soderbergh is no stranger to coloring outside the margins, so in a similar vein, he presents The Informant!, a like-it-or-leave-it endeavor blessed with a terrific central performance from Matt Damon.
Damon, who's a better actor than he's often given credit for being (as evidence, check out his potent one-two punch from 2006: The Departed and The Good Shepherd), leaves behind Jason Bourne's muscularity and goes all pudgy as Mark Whitacre, a midlevel executive at the major conglomeration Archer Daniels Midland. Whitacre seems like a pleasant enough fellow, so when he approaches FBI agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) volunteering to uncover a price-fixing racket at the company, they believe he might be honest when he claims he's turning whistleblower because it's the right thing to do. Unfortunately, with Mark Whitacre, there's far more than meets the eye. Whitacre has a way of embellishing some stories and leaving crucial facts out of other ones, which leads to no small amount of frustration for the agents trying to do their jobs. In Whitacre's mind, he's the hero of this particular saga, but to everyone else, he might merely be a lying nutjob.
In adapting Kurt Eichenwald's book The Informant (A True Story), scripter Scott Z. Burns and Soderbergh find the proper consistent tone to allow the film to function as a loopy satire (in other words, no one will be confusing this with the somber drama The Insider). Yet even within the constraints of what often feels like a coldly calculating game plan, there's some genuine poignancy on tap, made palatable by a sterling performance from Damon that allows the character to come off as clueless and immature rather than simply Machiavellian. This generous interpretation in turn fuels the film's comedic quotient, much of which comes from the thoughts racing through Whitacre's mind. The Informant! is heavy with Damon's voiceovers, as we're privy to his character's inner thoughts -- most of which are non sequiturs that illustrate how little Whitacre is paying attention to what those around him are saying or doing (his inner monologue involving polar bears is knockdown hilarious).
Adding to the mirth is a bouncy score by veteran Marvin Hamlisch, which never provides us with the musical cues we might expect. In fact, given the current state of the nation, with its stories of greedy banks and fat-cat CEOs bleeding average Americans dry, tackling this saga of corporate malfeasance with all comic cylinders firing might have been the only palatable way to present such an otherwise downbeat tale. Otherwise, if we weren't busy laughing, we'd be busy crying.