Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…
Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”) heralds his newest offbeat comedic entry with exclamation (indeed, with an exclamation point), as if portending the arrival of a superhero. While central character Mark Whitacre dons no cape, his ever-increasing delusions convince him of his singular importance. Whitacre’s eccentricities and homegrown fantasies against a vibrant and idiosyncratic backdrop carefully crafted by Soderbergh make “The Informant!” a hilarious, bizarre, and truly entertaining experience.
The film is entirely built around Mark Whitacre, a chief agribusiness scientist who accidentally starts working with the FBI to expose an international price-fixing scheme. Whitacre also builds the entire film: every piece of plot is owed to one of his actions and, often, one of his blunders. Despite mountains resting on his shoulders, little burden is felt by Whitacre. He basks in his import, in his celebrity, like an irrelevant reality television star hounded by misguided paparazzi.
What begins as an attempt to protect against disappointing experimental data quickly becomes a national story on big business corruption with multi-level FBI involvement. The path from A to B is improbably convoluted, but Whitacre is peculiar enough, or maybe ingenious enough, to pioneer a believable journey. He mixes a little truth with a lot of lies and half-truths to build a messy web of intrigue. It’s an equally absorbing and head-scratching journey. Unfortunately, the film fails to explicitly separate fact from fiction when the difference is crucial to narrative coherence, and the plot soon feels out of reach in its complexity.
But even as you scratch your head, you will be slapping your knee. ‘The Informant!’ is, simply put, a riot. Watching Whitacre reason his way into impossibly complex scenarios, guided by a priceless untempered audacity, proves both fascinating and hilarious. Much credit is owed to Matt Damon (the “Bourne” trilogy) for an extremely discerning portrayal. The meat of his performance lies in subtlety, infusing just enough quirk in his affect to maintain authenticity. With his body language, from each disquieted stare to every bounce and frustrated huff, he strikes gold. We explore Whitacre’s deepest delusions, however, during an ongoing series of voiced-over internal monologues. They provide huge laughs and even some pointed commentary, but Damon’s physicality alongside these ramblings is sorely missed. Nonetheless, this is hands down Damon’s best work since his breakthrough in “Good Will Hunting.”
The cast of supporting characters is solid, though mostly unremarkable. I was especially disappointed that comedian Joel McHale of TV’s “The Soup” fame was afforded so little to do. Other cameos from former “Arrested Development” cast-mates to both Smothers Brothers are fun in themselves but do little to up the comedic ante. As the slick and sturdy Justice Department attorney Robin Mann, Ann Cusack is the last one standing after Damon’s thunderous takeover. She seems at least as invested in her performance as Damon and might even operate with a sharper finesse.
It takes a master craftsman to make this sort of multi-layered intrigue translate—as a comedy, no less. Director Steven Soderbergh once again proves to be just that, conducting the film at a vibrant tempo. Neon pink scene titles help seal the deal, but the true gem of the comedic craftsmanship here is something entirely unseen. A buoyant score composed by Marvin Hamlisch both elevates and brilliantly reacts to the events onscreen. His work feels as crucial a presence in the film as Whitacre—the “Informant” himself.
Whitacre does eventually become smothered by his blanket of lies, and our laughs justly turn to sadness and worry. But here is where the film takes a critical misstep. Mental illness is introduced as a part of Whitacre’s narrative, and the tone immediately becomes sour. We must consider in retrospect that our amusement was based on the symptoms of an untreated sick man. The thought feels deplorable. I yearn for the day that Hollywood ceases to romanticize mental illness—that they should begin to consider its weight as something more than an entertaining character quirk. “The Informant!” never states this sort of objective, but it fails to even consider the implication.
Thoughtless it may occasionally be, “The Informant!” is a uniquely entertaining and well-executed film. It does not penetrate like the heights of cinematic artistry, but its subcutaneous efforts are still well worth the ride.
“The Informant!” is presented by Warner Bros. Pictures in association with Participant Media and Groundswell Productions. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Scott Z. Burns, based on the book The Informant (A True Story) by Kurt Eichenwald. Also starring Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, and Melanie Lynskey. Runtime is 108 minutes. Rated R for language.