The exclamation point in the title of "The Informant!" is the first sign that director Steven Soderbergh (2009's "The Girlfriend Experience
") is ever so pleased with his lighthearted take on the true story of Mark Whitacre, a biochemist whose lies to the FBI over illegal activities helped to almost bring down the very company that he worked for, Decatur, Illinois corn conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). The second sign is the jokey tone, wallowing in a self-deprecating running voiceover narration, overwrought facial expressions as a failed means of getting laughs, and a cartoonish, happy-go-lucky music score that alternately sounds like it should be complimenting a Doris Day comedy from the 1950s and a country hoedown. Precious little of the story and characters are treated seriously or realistically, amounting to the equivalent of a wink and a smile. All of this is not a stylistic choice so much as it is a desperate attempt to hide the weaknesses of a screenplay by Scott Z. Burns (2007's "The Bourne Ultimatum
") that offers no satisfactory insight into who Mark Whitacre is, why he does what he does, and how he was able to pull the wool over the eyes of authority figures for so long. Soderbergh would like audiences to believe that "The Informant!" is all in good fun and to just go with it, but the film is insulting in its superficiality and far more frustrating than amusing.
The story, opening in October 1992, begins with one truth: the lysine levels in ADM's product has been measured as abnormal and may potentially lead to a viral outbreak. Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) is happy to be the sponsor for the company as he sets out to investigate this issue and hopefully fix it in a timely manner before public word gets out. Then the lying begins, with Mark playing each side like a pianoboth the heads of ADM, and FBI agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale), who are insatiably interested in his claims of illegal foreign trading and price-fixing within the company. It is only a matter of time before Mark backs himself into a corner he can't weasel his way out of, but that time does not come, amazingly, until years later. By then, he has made millions of dollars, and the damage to ADM is already substantial.
Based on the non-fiction book by Kurt Eichenwald, "The Informant!" is repetitive to the point of supreme annoyance, virtually the same scene played over and over for nearly two hours. Once the viewer figures out the routineMark devises a big mistruth and tells it to authority figures, who either buy right into it or are convinced out of their initial skepticismthe film becomes a long, tedious slog of predictability as we wait for the other shoe to drop. Mark seemingly has an answer for everything, and the men and women he is working for at his job, the clients he handles overseas, and the agents at the Federal Bureau of Investigation are all asked to do nothing but seem awfully daft as they elicit looks of surprise by the whoppers Mark tells them. His wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), is the one person privy (at least at the onset) to what Mark is doing, and she demands he come clean early on rather than get himself into a heap of further trouble. This subplot is quickly dropped as the years pass by and Ginger disappears for long stretches of the film without explanation. Does Ginger still know what he is doing, or is Mark now lying to her? If she is still aware of his actions, why has she all of a sudden agreed to keep quiet? Likewise, if she has just become another victim in his web of deceit, why does she remain so steadfast and faithful with him later in the picture when the truth comes out? This is a grave error in the film, as it could have been the one chance for the audience to see who Mark really is in his private time with his wife and family.
As is, Mark remains an enigma. His rambling internal dialogue, heard in voiceover, jumps from one interesting yet random topic to the next. Largely disconnected to the plot proper, these musingsfrom the time he saved a man choking on a chicken bone, to his dislike of wool worn as clothing, to David Lynchian story ideas he hassuggest a busy-brained protagonist more enticing than the crooked, fuzzily motivated one that shows up on the screen. A doughier-than-usual Matt Damon (2006's "The Departed
") does what is asked of him as Mark Whitacre, but he is left wanting more character layers and texture than is given to him. As his FBI confidantes, Scott Bakula (2001's "Life as a House
") and Joel McHale (2004's "Spider-Man 2
"), the latter best known for hosting E!'s "The Soup," stay straight-faced and all-business. Dressed and styled to look like a housewife from the '50sthe film is set primarily in the '90sMelanie Lynskey (2009's "Away We Go
") makes the most of yet another of the script's malnourished parts.
What a person is supposed to take away from "The Informant!" is anyone's guess, just like what Mark Whitacre hoped to get out of his years-long charade is left for the viewer to question. Was Mark just a thief out to get money, or did his troubles run deeper than that? As depicted here, he has no conscience, no regrets for his deception, and no life outside of the movie's confined measurements. Judging by the up-tempo music score rumbling throughout, none of the above is supposed to be taken seriously. The only problem with this, then? None of it is funny. "The Informant!" would have been better informed with a page-one rewrite.