One of the many baffling wonders of Steven Soderbergh’s lively dark comedy The Informant! is that thanks to a running voiceover it’s almost always clear what’s going through the protagonist’s head—but that doesn’t help viewers decode him, or get any closer to him as a person. Even in high-stress situations, his mental processes are a nervy, hilarious babble of musings about polar-bear hunting techniques and poisonous butterflies. He seems a million miles away from his own life, which helps explain how he makes such a profound yet fascinating mess of it.
Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum) draws from Kurt Eichenwald’s dense true-crime book The Informant for the story of biochemist Mark Whitacre, the key witness in a price-fixing scandal centering on agricultural conglomerate ADM. As the story begins, Whitacre (Matt Damon) tells his superiors that he’s in contact with a Japanese whistle-blower who, for a mere $10 million, can expose the industrial saboteur in their midst and fix a production issue that’s costing them $7 million a month. His story seems likely; surely such a nebbishy, out-of-touch follower-type wouldn’t have the stones or the imagination to concoct such a tale. But when the FBI investigates the sabotage, Whitacre nervously distracts them with the promise of a massive price-fixing case. Two earnest FBI agents (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale) press Whitacre into service as a mole, a role he embraces and resists by unpredictable turns, leaving his frustrated handlers uncertain whether he’s cooperating or not. That dichotomy expands into a vast rift as his secrets tumble out.
While the details are fresh, the story arc follows a standard pattern, a cautionary tale of spiraling bad-faith decisions. But Soderbergh and Burns compensate by playing the story for wry laughs and adding an almost distracting variety of texture, from the ugly period fashions to the bright ’60s title fonts to a frisky, bubbling Marvin Hamlisch score full of comedic cues. The goofy tone and a cast sprinkled with comedy ringers (Tom Smothers, Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins) hint that the film is headed down the rabbit hole well before Soderbergh stops playing it straight. Not all the bells and whistles are necessary—Whitacre’s real-life deceptions were amazing enough to trump any spritely embellishment—but The Informant! chooses to earn its exclamation point with giggles as well as shock, and the results are thoroughly entertaining.