The Informant! is an odd film with a semi-reliable protagonist/narrator, and it starts somewhere then ends somewhere else. The unpredictability is what makes the film an interesting case study of human nature.
Mark Whitacre (Matt Demon) is a VP at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), a Lysine developing company. Mark started as an Ivy-League educated biochemist and worked his way up the corporate ladder, and his job is in jeopardy when a virus threatens to ruin their entire crop. Mark gets a secret tip from a Japanese competitor on how to fix the problem, but is informed that there is a mole who sabotaged the company. When the FBI is called in for an investigation and they want to tap Mark's phone, Mark -- urged by his wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) -- confesses to FBI agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) that he's been involved in a price-fixing operation with the senior executives at ADM.
Hoping his actions would help him avoid jail time, Mark agrees to become an informant for the FBI to gather evidence. At first he's only giving the FBI confidential documents, but that's not enough. They need hard evidence, including the actual act of negotiations and agreements. So Mark goes undercover and gathers hundreds of audio and video tapes to help the FBI build their case.
After the FBI raids the company and arrests the executives, Mark's status the whistle-blower is gradually revealed. Mark is not prepared for the media and corporate maelstroms, and eventually, he cracks and confesses to Shepard that he's lied. The truth is even more damning than the price-fixing. His action puts the entire operation in jeopardy as well as putting himself in a bad position in the court of law.
A lot of hubbub has been raised around Matt Damon (The Bourne Ultimatum) gaining over 30 pounds to play the balding, pudgy executive. In general, Damon has given an interesting, comical but also serious performance as a man suffering from bipolar disorder. Yet his character displays so many unattractive attributes, it's hard to completely identify with him. Melanie Lynskey (Away We Go) is sweet as Mark's doting and trusting wife, whose protective nature of her husband and family created the inciting incident that snowballs into a total fiasco.
Scott Bakula (Enterprise) is really good as FBI agent Shepard. He is steady, ernest and surprisingly friendly toward Mark Whitacre, a man often acting like a buffoon instead of an Ivy-League PhD. Bakula's solid performance and his character serve as the proxy for the audiences: we want to get the bad guys, and we're fooled by Mark just the way Shepard is. Thomas F. Wilson (Back to the Future) is excellent as ADM's top executive who is in the center of the company's price-fixing schemes. Wilson can play this type of slimy characters in his sleep. The huge supporting cast also includes Scott Adsit (30 Rock) as an executive and Joel McHale (The Soup) as an FBI agent.
Adapted by Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum) from Kurt Eichenwald's nonfiction, the screenplay is based on the true story of Whitacre, who became the highest-ranking corporate executive in US history to turn whistle-blower. The story is fascinating, no doubt. However, Burns' adaptation is confusing, convoluted, and in some ways, schizophrenic. I had a hard time understanding what was going on for a good portion of the film, and I'm not a dumb guy. The random, rambling narration by Damon doesn't help either -- I understand it is part of his characterization but it just comes out as distractions.
The dialogue is snappy and witty enough. Unfortunately, the over all comedic tone seems to try too hard to make a comedy out of a serious story. Price fixing and corporate crime are not funny matters, especially in light of all the financial turmoils the country and the world are facing right now. The comedic aspect of the film seems off-putting and inappropriate. Not to mention the protagonist, Mark Whitacre, just isn't all that likable. He's portrayed as a pudgy, self-absorbed liar and cheater, and everything about him is driven by self-interest. It is really difficult to identify and sympathize with a guy like him, thus it's really difficult to get into the story without a huge dose of cynicism.
Steven Soderbergh (Ocean 13) is a good director, and his films are usually slick and full of energy. The Informant! isn't that far off track. The story resembles The Insider (even with the same middle-aged, pug protagonist) but the tone is very different. Soderbergh's pace is brisk, and the production sharp. But the production gets bogged down by the convoluted story and the plot twists. They've tried too hard. Granted, the twist at the end is interesting, giving new meaning to the whole thing. But we, like Agent Shepard, feels frustrated because it seems like we've been played for a fool. This is a story from Mark's perspective but we're not allowed to see things from his perspective. Instead, we're kept in the dark just as much as everyone else, and that doesn't feel good. I would have preferred Soderbergh let us in on the secret early on so we have better insights on the problems Mark faces.
As is, The Informant! is interesting and entertaining enough, but its convoluted plot and huge cast of characters can be very disorienting. The filmmakers play it too close to the vest and the result is frustrating, especially when we don't particularly like the protagonist. So, for your information: I don't love it.
Stars: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Thomas F. Wilson, Scott Adsit, Melanie Lynskey, Joel McHale
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writers: Scott Z. Burns (based on Kurt Eichenwald's book)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 7.3 out of 10