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About half of Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! follows biochemist-turned-businessman Mark Whitacre as he deals with a virus at his huge food-additive company and later works with the FBI to uncover a price-fixing scandal. For a couple of years, he wears wires and orchestrates meetings between international food manufacturers, nudging them to say out loud that they agree on several price-fraud plans so the feds can bust ’em. Grocery store unnecessarily gouging consumers? Not on their watch.
And that’s it. Meanwhile, Marvin Hamlisch’s jaunty ’70s-sitcom-style soundtrack plays, to ensure that viewers understand that this whistleblower story is not quite as heavy as The Insider.
But wait—there’s more! As Whitacre (a puffy Matt Damon in horribly dated glasses) eventually tells us in his tumble-of-thoughts voiceover, “It feels good to talk.” And the more he babbles, the more interesting the story gets. Though the film is based on a true story that was immortalized in a book, it’s best to know as little as possible about the plot and its slow but deftly paced turn into unexpected territory.
Viewers are clued in to the flip tone with which Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns will buff events from the opening disclaimer: that although the gist of the story is true, some characters are composites and dialogue dramatized—“so there.” And as funny and generally clueless as Damon’s Whitacre can be (aided by the virtually forehead-slapping FBI agents played by Scott Bakula and The Soup’s Joel McHale), the focus on Whitacre and the corruption he’s trying to uncover mostly elicits a big “So what?” Years pass—the story takes place throughout the early-to-mid-’90s—evidence is gathered, Whitacre’s patient wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) gets increasingly nervous about her husband’s involvement.
It’d all be a big yawn if it weren’t for Damon’s very entertaining stream-of-consciousness narration, which makes us privy to Whitacre’s manic, almost always unrelated torrent of thoughts, such as wondering whether it’s OK to call Bakula’s agent Brian (“I might even try out ‘Bri’) to Wikipedia-like trivia (polar bears cover their noses to blend in while hunting prey—but how do they know their noses are black?). And, amusingly, the deeper Whitacre involves himself in the investigation, the more confident he becomes that his job at the Decatur, Ill., company is safe, since he’s the guy “in the white hat” who’s outing all the bad guys.
The Informant!’s twist, however, solidifies the film’s worthiness, differentiating it from quickly forgotten Soderbergh experiments likeThe Girlfriend Experience and Bubble. At times, it’s as entertaining as the Ocean’s series, and Damon is terrific as the book-smart but reality-dim suit who may be trying so strenuously to uncover corruption because he’d like a little attention himself. Within the context of the film, you want to smack some sense into Whitacre and beg him to stop talking. As a viewer, though, you realize that his logorrhea is key to making The Informant! a comedic gem.