Are you ready for whistleblowing as an absurdist comedy? Because that’s the way Steven Soderbergh has re-imagined the true-life story of dementedly delusional Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a top executive/Ph.D. biochemist and the youngest divisional president at Archer Daniels Midland, a Decatur, Illinois-based agribusiness, who – after learning about a Japanese extortion scheme in 1992 – decides to expose his company’s multi-national price-fixing conspiracy to the FBI.
Driving a Porsche, living with his wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) in a suburban mansion, he has devoted himself for years to turning corn into profit but now he’s toting wiretapping equipment, working as a ‘confidential informant.’ Once that happens, high-strung Mark is hooked into the spy world, referring to himself as Agent 0014 “because I’m twice as smart as James Bond” and spinning enough tall tales to utterly confuse the FBI agents (Scott Bakula, Joel McHale) who have been assigned to handle the case. Then there’s the indisputable fact that Mark has pocketed some $9 million in kickbacks.
Steven Soderbergh’s ambiguously ironic concept, based on a non-fiction thriller by Ken Eichenwald, bears more of a stylistic resemblance to “Catch Me If You Can” and “Burn After Reading” than serious big-business skullduggery exposes like “Erin Brockovich,” “Norma Rae” or “The Insider.” Yet its ditsy originality stems from screenwriter Scott Z. Burns’ (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) invention of Mark’s antic, extensive voiceover narration, an internal monologue that serves as indisputable evidence of his bipolar disorder. And credit Marvin Hamlisch for setting the delirious tone with his effervescent musical score.
But it’s really Matt Damon’s show. Piling on 30 pounds, wearing a hairpiece and mustache, along with steel-rimmed glasses, and pitching his voice higher than usual, he channels the manic energy that makes the undeniable charm of Mark’s character work, aided and abetted by supporting actors like the Smothers Brothers, Tom Wilson and Tom Papa. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Informant!” is a subversive, hide-and-sneaky 7, verifying that “Everyone in this country is a victim of corporate crime by the time they finish breakfast.”