Picture the involvedness of Michael Mann's The Insider, only set to brassy romper music, sporting goofy hair pieces, and still retaining a stone-faced attitude. That's the gist behind The Informant!, Steven Soderbergh's oddly-balanced exposť covering the life and times of the highest-level corporate whistleblower in history -- and his own bout with the law. More than anything, this is a case of mis-marketing to the highest accord; going in expecting a stream of laughs, as presented by the joyful poster artwork and chipper trailer, will likely disappoint. However, once you've settled in with the shrewd manner that director Soderbergh has constructed with this narration-heavy farce, it might just surprise with its back and forth between satirical charm and hard-to-believe dramatic turns.
Based off of Kurt Eichenwald's book, as amazing as it might seem, this story of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) is true. Well, it's an embellished truth for the sake of entertainment value, but still true. Whitacre's the science-geared head of the BioProducts division at ADM, a company that specializes in the many uses of corn, who has been participating in price-fixing of lysine, an additive used in everything from breakfast foods to soda. After a spy has been identified in the ADM mix that's causing the company hundreds of millions of dollars, the FBI -- headed in this investigation by Brian Shepherd (Scott Bakula) -- has been brought in to figure out the company's options regarding blackmail. With the authorities breathing down his neck and with his own pack of lies to shield, Whitacre decides to come clean about ADM's price-fixing, even go so far as to wear a recording device and videotape their interactions. He thinks he's in a Crichton novel.
Matt Damon packed on twenty some-odd pounds to play Mark Whitacre, and his dedication to the role shows. He musters an affable oaf out of him with Soderbergh's direction firmly in-tow, lumbering him through the cubicles at ADM with a sweaty, fidgety nature. It's matched with his hilarious cool-as-a-cucumber narration which, more times than not, are attention-deprived streams of consciousness that have little to nothing to do with what's going on around him. He mumbles in his mind about the number of syllables in the German word for pen as he drives to work in his wrongfully-earned Porsche, while pondering a two-for-one sale on striped Oscar de la Renta ties as the FBI investigator asks if he can visit his home and tap his phone line. With a backdrop of vibrant melodies scattered atop some rather real drama, Damon finds a way to project the "innocent" corporate stooge with a sense of infuriating likability -- never faltering, even as he begins to weave his own web of lies.
We catch inklings early on that there might be something amiss with Whitacre, as he scrambles around and fumes in a way that reminds me a bit of William H. Macy's fumbling car salesman in Fargo. The truth, as we discover, is far more complex. Soderbergh dashes through the series of events and yanks away lie after lie that the corporate machine spews out, creating a black hole directly at the center of the sinking consumer-based company. Even as lives are being destroyed, the playful music continues almost in a Benny Hill-esque fashion while Whitacre rambles on about polar bears killing in the wild. He's concerned, obviously, but in our line of sight it's hard not to relish in his maze of lies. Seeing the collapse play out in such a chipper fashion almost made it feel dirty or taboo to get wrapped up in its peculiar tone, and I liked that.
The Informant! makes use of a broadly comedic cast, which deepens the intrigue behind the film when it barely tip-toes over to chuckle-worthy black comedy. Melanie Lynskey, a new favorite from Away We Go and Up in the Air as a flighty-minded archetype, plays Whitacre's manipulative, mousy, yet devotedly loving wife Ginger, showing us where some of the brains behind this whole collapse comes from. Joel McHale from Community and Talk Soup tags along with Scott Bakula's Brian as something of the "bad cop" in the FBI pair, playing the role stern-faced and never opening the floodgates to his exuberance. Other comic names enter the mix -- Patton Oswalt, Tom Papa, even the Smothers Brothers in very separate roles -- that all tease at popping the lid on this whole subdued comedic tone, yet Soderbergh cunningly opts to use their dramatic talents and tease his audience. He thoroughly plays off of their energy, but in a way that's unexpected.
This just isn't that kind of bluntly comedic film, a fact that becomes more and more evident as the components begin to deconstruct and utter corporate chaos ensues. Those unfamiliar with the full network of lunacy within Whitacre's story will feel like things are boiling to a wrap-up point near the center of The Informant! What onlookers won't realize is that we're standing on top of a trap door that's ready to be opened, just as soon as the truth about Whitacre's own greed and scheming begin to surface. He's not a white knight, more of a guy with a warped sense of reality and a bunch of excuses, and Soderbergh uses the opportunity to pump momentum into his picture with grin-inducing suspense. Humorous lines such as the one about ASM committing fraud on the world population before breakfast get a few laughs, but the realism behind Whitacre's collapse -- a fidgety stream of dishonesty -- is slack-jaw inducing on a firm level.
Video and Audio:
Warm photography, shot with Red One digital cameras and approaching a similar composition to Soderbergh's series of Ocean films, adorns Warner Brothers' 1.78:1 VC-1 encode for The Informant! Lights bloom in the distance and flesh tones mostly lean towards being orange, but they fit against the intended color timing to a proper degree. It's not a densely-detailed image, appearing appropriately hazy as to the intended nature of the film, but a few of the interior shots within the ADM headquarters reflect a colder, appropriately textured atmosphere. That doesn't prevent the visuals on this Blu-ray disc from being somewhat unimpressive, as many darker sequences appear slightly smeared and flat. It's not a bad representation of the digitally-shot film, fitting but nothing special in high-definition.
Dialogue is the only pertinent element to this DTS HD Master Audio track, which Warner's Blu-ray renders to the best of its abilities. Aside from a few flickers of music, nothing's really going to come out from the rear channels. There's very little sound effect activity in the sound track anyway, absent of any kinds of boisterous activity outside of dinnerware clanking. The vibrant score, handled by Lost in Translation and Shrek the Third composer Marvin Hamlisch, bumps and flutters along as you'd expect it to, with the finely-balanced dialogue matched against the sounds design. It serves its purpose without offering anything terribly characteristic, which is just the way it should be. English, French, and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are also available, along with subtitles in those languages as well.
Commentary with Steven Soderbergh and Scott Burns:
"It's all about the ties". Director Soderbergh and writer Scott Burns deliver a sober but insightful commentary -- a good thing, since it's the only real supplement for the film. They discuss adapting Kurt Eichenwald's book, casting stand-up comedians, shooting on-location in the Whitacre family house, and about Warner Brothers' reservations with the picture. They remain conversational throughout, but with a knowledge that they have an audience to keep interested.
Aside from that, we've got next-to-nothing. A set of five disposable Deleted Scenes (6:25, HD) are a welcome watch, but the absence of a Trailer and other behind-the-scenes materials behind this production is disappointing. Disc Two contains both a DVD and a Digital copy of the film, though the standard-definition presentation doesn't contain the special features of the Blu-ray (i.e. the commentary).
Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! is a jack-in-the-box surprise; cranking it up and expecting a persistent stream of blurting laughs won't happen, but what pops out of the box -- a sly, amusing blend of pitch-black comedy amid terse corporate drama -- satisfies to a potent, somewhat discomforting degree. It almost seems modestly sadistic to relish in watching Mark Whitacre, terrifically brought to life by Matt Damon, get caught in the FBI's web, especially once his own dirty little secrets rise to the surface. Warner Brothers' Blu-ray/DVD combo pack offers the film with serviceable audiovisual properties and very little extras, but the quality of the film alone makes this one a solid Recommendation.