Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!, like the director's one-two Oscar® punch Erin Brockovich and Traffic, is an energetic exposé of corporate/criminal chicanery with wide-ranging implications for life in these United States. Not so much like those movies, it plays as hyper-caffeinated comedy. At its center is Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a biochemist and junior executive at agri-giant Archer Daniels Midland who, in 1992, began feeding the FBI evidence of ADM's involvement in price fixing. Mark's motive for doing so is elusive, sometimes self-contradictory, and subject to mutation at any moment. To describe him as bipolar would be akin to finding the Marx Brothers somewhat zany. His Fed handlers, along with the audience, start thinking of him as a hapless goofball. Then they and we get blind-sided with the revelation of further dimensions of Mark's life at ADM, and the nature of the investigation, and the movie, changes. That will happen again. And again. It's Soderbergh's ingenious strategy to make us fellow travelers on Mark's crazy ride, virtually infecting us with a short-term version of his dysfunctional being.
Props to screenwriter Scott Z. Burns for boiling down Kurt Eichenwald's 600-page book The Informant: A True Story without sacrificing coherence. And Matt Damon, bulked up by two stones and spluttering his manic lines from under a caterpillar mustache, reconfirms his virtuosity and his willingness to dive deep into such a dodgy personality. On the downside, despite a small army of comedians in cameo roles, The Informant! has nothing like the rich field of subsidiary characters encountered in Erin Brockovich and Traffic. That lack of vibrancy is aggravated by the dominance of prairie-flat Midwest speech patterns and cadences (most of the film unreels in Illinois), and the razzmatazz score by veteran tunesmith Marvin Hamlisch sounds like pep-rally music on an industrial film. Soderbergh also photographed the movie (under his pseudonym Peter Andrews), and his decision to show everything through a corn-mush filter turns it into a big-screen YouTube experience. --Richard T. Jameson