Following a few critically shrug-worthy films, The Informant! returns to what makes Steven Soderbergh’s chameleon aesthetics engaging. Once again, the director's sense of humor and fanboy awe of cinema's power play major roles: The Informant! blends Soderbergh's occasional explorations of suburbia (Schizopolis, Bubble) with a political bent (Traffic, Che) and penchant for intelligent genre play (The Limey, Solaris) into a dark comedy that moves beyond a mere examination of corruption.
In an impressive juxtaposition that yields far more than a slew of predictable one-liners, Scott Z. Burns (of the Bourne films) and Soderbergh’s screenplay uses comedy to tell a true story about conspiracy and espionage. The Informant! follows Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a division president at a powerful corporation that produces food additives who becomes an informant for the FBI, exposing an international price-fixing conspiracy. But Whitacre can't tell the truth without some omissions, which affects how Whitacre addresses everyone, including the audience. Despite his repeated claims that he’s told everything there is to tell, he’s always clearly speaking in half-truths. It is because of this and his odd imprudence that makes it hard to take Whitacre seriously or believe that a dopey scientist has committed these crimes. Not even the soundtrack can even take Whitacre seriously: the often-comical score reflects Whitacre’s perception of the story, vacillating from early slapstick jaunts in major keys to tense spy movie leitmotifs.
Unlike genre cohort Michael Mann’s The Insider, The Informant! never becomes outwardly angry or preachy. Soderbergh exposes the inherent ironies of corporate fraud with the laughable way in which an average man mistakes being an informant for being James Bond. Indeed, the film’s anger is masked in the absurd portrayal of the people committing these crimes. They're not well-trained criminals or part of an elite class; they are average Midwesterners with nice homes, the kind of people who do not realize the magnitude of their crimes.
The Informant!'s refusal to obsess over its own outrage creates a dynamic in which the crimes themselves aren’t necessarily the film's focal point. What matters is Whitacre himself, a loveable anti-hero who we can’t help but cheer for, thanks largely to a standout performance from a portly, mustachioed Matt Damon. While maintaining his frustrating unreliability and complicity in defrauding every grocery-buying American, the filmmakers imbue Whitacre with a certain likability through a series of seemingly random, inane voiceovers. Mid-conversation, Whitacre’s internal monologue will take center stage, digressing on random subjects ranging from the color of polar bear noses, to how wrong it is that Japanese men buy used panties in the streets, to his favorite German words.
There is a little of everyone in Whitacre: the desire to wear, as he says, the “white hats” and turn in the “black hats,” and the sense that maybe your hat isn’t as white as you’d like to think. And that’s what makes this film work. It's also what makes it so damn hilarious. Whitacare is not a cold and calm everyman like Russell Crowe’s Jeffrey Wigand, and he’s not overly slick like Nick Naylor in Thank You For Smoking. Damon feels more regular than that: He’s excited about being a spy. He likes to think that he’s doing the right thing, and he can’t understand why more people don’t agree with him.
Despite reaching a point of diminishing returns that fades into a somewhat hackneyed, Hitchcockian conclusion, the film is decidedly strong. The Informant! might not be Soderbergh's brightest moment, but it at least affirms that the director still has the capacity for great work.