With Matt Damon, Scott Bakula. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Rated R for language. 108 minutes.
Ten years ago Russell Crowe appeared in a movie called “The Insider,” the true story about someone in a major corporation who decided to tell truth about the wrongdoing he had witnessed. It was an impressive and powerful drama. Yet sometimes the story isn’t quite that neat. Director Steven Soderbergh has a similar story to tell, but he tells it as a comedy, and that was the right choice.
Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) works for Archer Midland Daniels, the gigantic agribusiness whose corn by-products are in almost every processed food we eat. When the FBI is called in to investigate what seems to be a bit of sabotage and extortion from a Japanese rival, Whitacre reaches out to FBI special agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) to tell him about criminal activity he has personally witnessed and been involved in. His bosses have conspired with competitors to engage in illegal price fixing, and Whitacre feels so guilty about going along that he’s ready to cooperate with the government.
Immediately red flags are raised about Whitacre’s confession and offer to assist the FBI. For one thing, his internal monologue – presented to us as narration – shows a man seriously disconnected from the reality around him. For another, Whitacre thinks turning in his bosses will advance his career at the company, and yet his story keeps changing as it goes along. There’s something mighty peculiar going on here, and by film’s end we have no more of a fix on him than anyone else who deals with him.
It’s a bravura performance from Damon who plays Whitacre as a man who wants to be liked and admired, yet shows the audience numerous reasons why he simply can’t be trusted. It’s not so much that he’s a bad guy, although he does own up to criminal activities in which he participated, but that he sees himself as the hero of a movie – perhaps the one we’re watching – with everyone else as supporting players. In short, Whitacre is delusional, yet some of the information he provides is good. Allowing his conversations to be wired, he provides the FBI with solid evidence that the price fixing is taking place. In spite of the documented evidence, the fact that it was obtained with the assistance of a man who seems to be a loon makes it suspect.
Helped along by a bouncy score by Marvin Hamlisch (reminiscent of his score for Woody Allen’s “Bananas”) Soderbergh tells this story and invites us to laugh. He even casts both Smothers Brothers in bit parts as if to indicate this is all a lark. Yet there’s real criminal activity here, some of it committed by Whitacre’s bosses and some committed Whitacre himself. What are the FBI agents and Justice Department attorneys, who have to operate in the real world, to do?
“The Informant!” is a quirky film that asks us to care not because we have a lot invested in uncovering corruption (although we do) but because this happened. People are strange, doing the right things for the wrong reasons, and all we can do is marvel at how people can be complex and irrational and how that’s part of the human condition.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.