If only The Informant! were as giddy as its exclamation-point title, as jaunty as its corporate Muzak soundtrack — or even as funny as its TV commercials.
The Informant! is The Insider played for laughs, The Talented Mr. Ripley without the murder. This jaw-dropping corporate farce is built around a zany Matt Damon performance as a guy who blew the whistle on agri-business giant Archer Daniels Midland, a company where "corn goes in one end and money comes out the other." ADM was accused of conspiring with its competitors in "fixing" the prices of commodities. The guy the government learns about this from could be their dream "mole" or a prosecutor's nightmare.
Mark Whitacre (Damon) is an ADM division chief when we meet him in 1992, a biochemist trying to get a new production line running. Things aren't working out. When he yells "Sabotage!" ADM gets the FBI involved. And that's when Whitacre spills. The agents (Scott Bakula, Joel McHale) are incredulous at his tale of fraud.
But this Whitacre guy, with his many cars, the stables he's building across the street — can they trust him? He's outraged by ADM's behavior, morally compelled to out them. As he wears "a wire" and goofily stage-manages his work as "0014, because I'm twice as smart as 007," he will blow the whistle on why worldwide prices of corn-based products rise in unison.
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Damon and his Ocean's Eleven director Steven Soderbergh team up for this "true" "caper" picture, with Damon playing Whitacre as a guy whose inner life is a blizzard of random thoughts — about the kinky stuff they sell in Tokyo's Ginza shopping district, the goofy Feds who don't treat him like Tom Cruise — "Didn't these people see The Firm?"
Soderbergh plays this story straight, relying on the amateurish silliness of Whitacre and the tale's escalating absurdity to deliver laughs. He never quite nails the tone and even toys with stunt casting (both Smothers Brothers have bit parts).
The Informant! never finds the ring-ding-ding of the last Ocean's movie. It's surreal, but no laugh riot, because who can giggle when you're slack-jawed at the chutzpah of it all?