The flipside of Erin Brockovich, The Informant! is a whistle-blower’s tale in which the whistle emits a cacophony of confusion.
It’s not surprising that Steven Soderbergh opted to highlight the blackly comic absurdities in the true-life tale of Mark Whitacre (played by Matt Damon).
He was a biochemist who crawled into bed with the feds to expose a global price-fixing scandal involving his agri-business employers. Yet Whitacre had an over-active imagination, falling victim to his own delusions.
Flaunting an expanded waistline and an unflattering rug, Damon nails the slack physicality of this grade-A Midwestern nerd as well as his mental quirks. It’s a bravura performance that serves up so much giddy pleasure, it keeps The Informant!’s cracks from becoming too obvious. Credit too to screenwriter Scott Burns, who has a great gimmick in Whitacre’s batty internal monologue, which he counterbalances with solid plotting.
But as you’d expect from a film! that feels the need to punctuate! its comedy credentials!, The Informant!’s humour skirts close to arch self-amusement. Often it feels like Soderbergh’s laughing harder than the rest of us.
Meanwhile, his constant stoking of Damon’s performance has the unwanted side-effect of leaving other characters underfed. Instead, Scott Bakula (the FBI man trying to build a case around his erratic mole) and Melanie Lynskey (Whitacre’s wife) have their work cut out trying to ground the increasingly jokey shenanigans.
The film’s best scenes – Whitacre putting the sting on his colleagues; a diner summit where he admits a few fibs to his FBI handlers– are jewels of cringe comedy. And the film’s coated in a groovy varnish that curiously recalls the ’70s rather than the actual ’90s setting.
Not Soderbergh at his best, then, but there’s enough screwy fun to keep you buzzing – and to build excitement for Steve ‘n’ Matt’s next joint effort: Liberace.
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Although Damon is on brilliantly bumbling form, The Informant! ultimately comes off as Soderbergh’s Burn After Reading – a diversionary lark until he gets back to serious filmmaking.