I remember hearing about this film during an NPR interview and being instantly intrigued by how bizarre the film sounded. At that point in time, I was not quite versed enough in film to associate the work with director Steven Soderbergh, despite having seen all the Ocean's movies and even owning his genius comedy Schizopolis. When watching this film I could not get over how absurdly fictitious the film was, yet so incredibly believable. I assumed it to be some excellent fabrication of all the worst problems in The United States as seen by Soderbergh. This was how I was feeling until the film ended and I realized that it was by no mean fictitious, but indeed a very real story, on that had occurred right underneath Americans noses in the nineties. What is delivered with a film like The Informant! is a story so fantastical and reprehensible that a viewer can only make light of it, for to take such a story serious would be an incredibly depressing endeavor. I want to refer to the film as a piece of conspiracy cinema, because it is so entrenched in a anti-government paranoia, yet the fact of the matter is that the main character was deserved in his concerns for he was legitimately engaging in illegal behavior. Perhaps it is Matt Damon's excellent performance or the possibility that the film only works in the crafty hands of Steven Soderbergh, but damn if this is not one of the most overlooked films of 2009.
The films focus is on Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) a wholesome agricultural engineer turned businessman at Illinois based business ADM. A pedantic, walking encyclopedia, Mark discovers that his company is engaging in illegal price fixing affairs and draws this to the attention of his superiors. Rather confused by the claim, Mark's superiors take his accusations seriously and bring in the FBI to begin an investigation. The FBI agents, played spot on by Scott Bakula and Joel McHale begin questioning a considerably helpful staff at ADM only to be informed by Mark that his superiors are indeed lying to the government. At this point, the agents recruit Mark to help with their investigation as a sort of inside man to the going-ons of ADM on a global scale, particularly their relations with their Asian affiliates who appear to be the most active in the price gouging. As the case grows bigger so do Mark's accusations and inabilities, when asked to provide specific details or to tap conversations Mark consistently evades the tasks, claiming that he either cannot perform the task or has obtained a sudden loss of memory to a situation. Faltering between incredibly jovial behavior and insanity Mark clearly suffers from delusions of grandeur, which come to fruition when it is realized by an investigator at the now closed ADM that Mark himself had been engaging in his own illicit monetary scams and had indeed used the entire gouging accusation as a distraction for his own transferring of funds to the tune of nearly ten million dollars. Even when Mark is faced with the blatant facts that he has committed serious fraud he smiles and claims that his actions were rather arbitrary compared to his superiors. When told that their actions were indeed fabricated and that he would have to spend time in jail, Mark becomes furious and claims that he was nothing more than a puppet for the FBI. In his fury, he attempts to bring down the agents he aided, by claiming they assaulted him and is successful in removing one of them from service before being jailed. The film closes with an interview with Mark from a decade later as he is leaving federal prison, in the interview Mark asks for a presidential pardon for his unjust criminal record and claims innocence from all wrongdoing. The film then closes with an explanation that it was later realized that Mark swindled a larger amount of money than even the government initially realized. It is a stellar display of the many faces of corruption, which at times can be incredibly friendly.
I am tempted to go into detail on corruption and big business as it is one of the integral themes of the film and obviously a large concern for Soderbergh, however, I feel as though the film speaks to this a great deal and to elaborate would be redundant. Instead, I want to discuss the casting choices for the film as they help to elucidate the absurdity for which Soderbergh's film attempts to portray. Excluding Matt Damon, who is simply an excellent actor and the character of Ginger Whitacre played by Melanie Lynskey, better known for playing opposite Kate Winslett in Heavenly Creatures, the cast is meant to be comedic. Actors like Tony Hale, Patton Oswalt and Joel McHale comprise the film, not necessarily, because they are excellent at acting overall, but because they are capable of committing to images and actions that are so far gone from logic without the slightest inclination of it being ridiculous. One only needs to think of Tony Hale as Buster Bluth to realize how good Hale is at delivering the absurd, which is what allows him to play Mark's lawyer with equal parts ease and theatrics, without the entire performance seeming forced. The viewer will instantly feel for Hale's character that is simply attempting to defend a crazed man, but has only begun to realize how truly gone his defendant has become. Even the choice of Scott Bakula as Special Agent Brian Shepard is intentional, because as viewers will instantly recognize him as Quantum Leap's Sam Beckett. Given the rather unconventional plot of the sci-fi show, it is no surprise that Bakula brings an earnestness to the character of Shepard despite the narratives seeming unconventionality. As a character, Shepard is asked to believe some rather implausible things, and Bakula makes this seem easy. With all this being said a large amount of the praise should be given to Matt Damon for his performance. The film is easily one of the highlights of his career and it is a shame Damon was beat out by a handful of serious films for a Best Actor nod.
The Informant! is a fine example of the multiple faces of Soderbergh as a director. It is easily his funniest film and a refreshing contrast to his more conventional Hollywood releases. I cannot urge you enough to get your own copy.