There is a classic episode of Seinfeld ("The Stall") where, upon being declared crazy by Jerry for believing Jerry's girlfriend to work on a phone sex line, Kramer replies, "Am I? Or am I so sane that you just blew your mind?" Kramer is, as anyone who has watched an episode of the series will happily tell you, completely crazy. However, in the case of "The Stall" he's also absolutely correct. Watching Matt Damon's character, Mark Whitacre, in The Informant! I can't help but recollect that Seinfeld episode.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, The Informant! opens in the early 1990s and finds Matt Damon playing a scientist who has moved over to the business side at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). In dealing with some problems with the processing of lysine, Whitacre creates one lie which promptly leads to a federal investigation; more lies; some truth; and trouble for ADM, Whitacre, and the FBI.
It all starts out simply enough. The FBI is brought in to help investigate a possible mole in ADM's operation, one who is sabotaging their work in order to benefit a Japanese company. That evolves into an investigation about the price-fixing of lysine and to Whitacre's becoming an informant. Goofy and unintelligent as he may appear (and in fact truly be), Whitacre records hundreds of conversations for the agents running him, Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale).
Based on a true story but played mainly for laughs, the film continually keeps the viewer wondering whether Whitacre is telling the truth in any or all aspects of what he tells the FBI and what he stands to gain from informing on the company he works for. In the end, it is these questions which prove the most interesting and the least well answered.
Soderbergh has created a very fun film and Damon an enjoyable – if overly goofy – character, but watching everything unfold is completely intriguing, particularly because it is based on a true story. Initially, and probably to build the audience's inquisitiveness, the film declines to tell us why Whitacre is proceeding along this course of action; however, when the time comes for the film to open up — to lay Whitacre's motivations bare — it comes up short. While we are given perfunctory reasons for Whitacre's acting in the manner he does, they are never wholly satisfying or believable.
In large part, the reason for this disappointment is the fact that the film plays out as a comedy. Whitacre, as portrayed by Damon, is barely believable as someone with a Ph.D. and far less believable as someone trying to mastermind his own corporate advancement. Simply put – he is played as far too unintelligent to believe for a minute that he could possibly have conceived of the plan which is eventually pinned to him. For a film which otherwise tells an interesting tale and keeps the viewer guessing as to the truth while, at the same time, providing more than one chuckle it is terribly frustrating. Obviously, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns were working off of both a nonfiction book by Kurt Eichenwald and the true events behind the story, but as the film itself tells us in its opening it is not all entirely true. Between that and the fact that it didn't have to played as a comedy to the degree that it is, a more compelling and believable conclusion had to be within reach with some reworking.
Matt Damon has been recognized with a Golden Globe nomination for the film, and to be sure, he is terribly watchable and funny. As is always the case with Damon, he seems to be truly invested in the role rather than simply getting by on his charms or a flashy smile. The rest of the cast is quite good as well, particularly Bakula and McHale as the increasingly frustrated and perplexed FBI agents. Anyone who only knows McHale from The Soup or his current NBC sitcom, Community, will be surprised to see a different – and perhaps far better – side of the actor here. Melanie Lynskey as Mark's wife, Ginger, also delivers a solid turn as the stand-by-her-man woman.
The Blu-ray release of The Informant! provides average video quality. The amber look of the film makes it all seem slightly more 1970s than 1990s, but gives the film a distinctive look. The movie contains both overly dark and light scenes, and the transfer recreates both well – things are somewhat indistinct in the dark and windows are slightly blown-out in the light. Even so, it is the yellowish look that pervades much of the film which creates the most indelible images.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio is slightly less enjoyable than the video. There is little activity in the surrounds throughout the film, but more disturbing than that (after all, that seems to be a directorial choice) are the sometimes uneven dialogue audio levels. Damon provides a voiceover during the film which doesn't always come in at remotely the same audio level as regular conversations and there is a particularly bad moment of what seems to be looped dialogue by McHale at the end of the film. Certainly it is not as bad as Willie Scott's yelling at Indiana Jones on the raft in Temple of Doom, but it will cause one to pause and be taken out of the film.
In terms of extras, The Informant! provides little. There is a commentary track with Soderbergh and Burns, a few deleted scenes, and a second disc which contains both a DVD and digital copy of the film, but that is the extent of the bonuses. For a film which – even despite its insufficient conclusion – is compelling and fun to watch, the lack of some behind-the-scenes material is a disappointment.
Soderbergh and Damon have worked well together on more than on occasion, and while one might want more from the conclusion of this particular joint venture, there is still a lot to enjoy. One won't be able to help the feeling after watching that there ought to have been more, but what is there is lively and entertaining. Whitacre may have been just as crazy as Cosmo Kramer, but like Kramer, crazy doesn't always equal wrong.