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.