With “The Informant!”, Steven Soderbergh enforces a happy-go-lucky sensibility not unlike the hyperbolic punctuation in its title. Transporting the agreeable flow of his “Ocean’s” series to a company espionage setting, the director turns a rather dry true life story of company conspiracies, embezzlement and delusions of power into a disarming entertainment. The result, while weirdly uneven, contains enough slyly amusing flourishes to make Soderbergh’s eccentric coup d’etat work on a basic level: He teeters on the edge of satire without fully jumping in. It’s intentionally slapdash and sometimes too self-indulgent, but the unlikely tone has a few charms.
The movie chronicles the rise and fall of former Archer Daniels Midland employee Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), whose mid-1990’s secret compliance with the FBI’s investigation into the agricultural conglomerate’s price-fixing scandal backfired into a comedy of errors. “Everyone in this country is a victim of corporate crime before they finish breakfast,” a federal agent observes, establishing the rare humorous case study in the history of corporate malfeasance.
Or, at least, that’s the way it plays in “The Informant!” One imagines that Whitacre’s actual saga lacked the uppity soundtrack that Soderbergh uses to set the gleeful tone. The blaring horns of 1960s-era spy movies and slapstick comedies jives with the material despite the chronological mismatch, much like the ragtime music in “The Sting.” That said, Soderbergh’s energetic formalism eventually grows tiring, and the movie lacks emotional finality. Whitacre’s motives for cooperating with the FBI — he wears a wire during meetings with his colleagues and clients — was ultimately a vain attempt to boost his own standing within the company. Though his wife (Melanie Lynskey) tries to inject some sense into him, nobody can fully access his inner logic. The movie doesn’t bother to probe the contradiction, leaving the distinct feeling of superficiality in its wake.
But “The Informant!” delivers more of a good time than anyone could reasonably expect with this kind of material. At times, it’s like a high-minded, unending “Saturday Night Live” sketch, randomly populated by stand-up comics in oddly straightforward roles (Tony Hale and Patton Oswalt both get opportunities to chew on the scenery) that also gently jabs at the incompetent American security forces. The two security agents constantly on Whitacre’s case (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale) spend most of the movie looking repeatedly shocked at his decision to be so forthcoming. Rather messily, the movie arrives at an explanation for his motives, but the later scenes of “The Informant!” where the whole story comes out can’t match the smooth rhythm of its earlier moments. Damon’s charming performance makes Whitacre seem overly eager to engage in the FBI’s machinations, a tendency that constantly endangers their operation. He decides to call himself “Secret Agent 0014,” explaining that “I’m twice as smart as 007.” But even as his voiceover turns the movie into a personal snapshot of a man lost in his futile aspirations, the real star is Soderbergh’s comic intentions.