Andy Bockelman: 'Informant!' espionage and business don't mix - and that's funny

"The Informant!"

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

Time: 108 minutes

Starring: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula and Melanie Lynskey

What do you get when you cross the main characters of "Erin Brockovich," "Catch Me If You Can" and "The Office?"

The daring, deceptive, deluded amalgam wouldn't even come close to the off-the-charts, seriocomic corporate antics of the man known as "The Informant!"

After all, he earned an exclamation point in his title.

Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) is the backbone of Decatur, Ill., food conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland.

Or at least he thinks he is.

He does have his finger on the pulse closely enough to know that ADM's executives are doing slightly shady business. When a blackmail attempt from a competing company comes across the wire, the FBI is alerted to keep watch.

But at the insistence of his wife (Melanie Lynskey), Whitacre mentions to the investigating agent (Scott Bakula) that dirty deeds are being done. He just happens to twist the facts a little more in his favor.

His "cooperation" leads to the FBI using him as a mole in an ongoing probe of price fixing charges in the food additive industry. But lysine isn't the only thing that's under scrutiny, as Whitacre takes it upon himself to use his undercover position to his advantage in the hopes of becoming ADM's CEO, all without the Bureau's realization.

Never before has a portrayal of a real person seemed so outlandish and grounded at the same time.

Damon plays his role for laughs while still making Mark Whitacre inescapably genuine. It's hard to tell if he's crazy, coy or just plain stupid, but when you combine these elements correctly, the result is uproarious.

Still, there's a method to Whitacre's madness, even if - or perhaps for this very reason - it doesn't look like it.

It's all Bakula and Joel McHale can do to keep from snickering as special agents Brian Shepard and Bob Herndon, who sincerely believe Whitacre's efforts are purely altruistic.

As his better half, Ginger, Lynskey's reactions to her spouse's decisions and their aftereffects are priceless.

The comedy is constant throughout the cast - with highlights from Tom Wilson, Ann Cusack, Tony Hale, Candy Clark, Frank Welker and Tom and Dick Smothers - who are nearly always either agog at Whitacre's "integrity," or at the fact that he doesn't seem to have a great grip on reality.

Kurt Eichenwald's tell-all book about Whitacre's experiences scamming more than $9 million while working for the FBI from 1992 through the decade comes alive in this slant on true events. Director Steven Soderbergh not only brings out the all-too-easy target of corporate ineptitude, but he emphasizes this with an additional indictment of personal greed and hubris.

Whitacre keeps up a mile-a-minute inner dialogue on topics that range from his own career frustrations to the more obscure subject of used-panty vending machines in Japan, and the ethics thereof.

No, these musings have nothing to do with anything in the primary story, but they show that this guy, for all his scheming and dreaming, is kind of a moron.

Whitacre's schemes play out so unintentionally well for him at first you might think it's a fluke.

Marvin Hamlisch's bouncy, whimsical musical score only adds to the view that Whitacre is somewhat of a dolt, but this is just one of many layers of his personality.

As the story continues, it becomes more and more difficult to believe. At times, it requires a complete leap of faith to buy everything that's going on in and out of the office.

Either way, it's an insightful look at the business world and its denizens.

It's Damon who makes "The Informant!" more than your average corporate thriller. Only through his interpretation of Whitacre as a simultaneously bumbling and brilliant sleazebag does the story come off as spectacularly ingenious as it should be.

Imagine what a simple concept it is: An executive who typifies both the vulnerable and veiled sides of humanity.

It's hard to say which is worse, Whitacre's deceptive nature and his questionable hair.

That rug is the real crime.

Comments

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Requires free registration

Posting comments requires a free account and verification.