Steven Soderbergh already directed one movie about a whistleblower, “Erin Brockovich,” a straightforward picture that stuck it to The Man and won an Oscar for Julia Roberts.
His new one, “The Informant!,” is also about a whistleblower. But tread warily after that: There’s nothing straightforward about this film.
The wacky exclamation point gives it away. “The Informant!,” though based on a true story from the 1990s, is Soderbergh’s stab at a “Catch-22”-style black comedy — thus proving that nothing beats reality when it comes to unmitigated weirdness.
Matt Damon, wearing an extra 30 pounds of flab and a ridiculous mustache, plays Mark Whitacre, a high-level employee of corporate giant Archer Daniels Midland. During some FBI questioning on a different matter, Whitacre tells an agent (Scott Bakula) that ADM has been involved in a giant illegal price-fixing scheme.
What follows could have been a normal suspense film about Whitacre working with the FBI to clandestinely record meetings proving ADM’s corporate crime. And sure enough, the movie works for a while at that level.
But something’s odd about this. For one thing, we keep hearing Whitacre’s bizarrely free-associating voiceover, even in dramatic scenes. Hmmm — seems like his brain is spinning like a gerbil on a wheel and the man has an ability to compartmentalize.
The more we get into the film, the more comes out about Whitacre’s own workplace high jinks. Soderbergh, who directed Damon in the “Ocean’s Eleven” movies, plays this out like a con artist. We share the disbelief of the FBI crew as they discover each new revelation about their apparent golden boy.
Along with the clue of Whitacre’s daffy voiceover musings (made drolly funny by screenwriter Scott Z. Burns), there are other indications that things aren’t as they seem. Why, for instance, are so many small roles played by stand-up comedians? There’s Patton Oswalt, Joel McHale, Paul F. Tompkins and — are those really the Smothers Brothers?
Damon handles his dizzy role well, catching the Coen brotherslike humor of the character but also drawing out a vein of desperation there. Melanie Lynskey isn’t required to do much as his wife, but she does it well.
Soderbergh cranks out movies quickly, an approach I like, but “The Informant!” feels like something that might have benefited from another screenplay draft and a different visual approach to its series of mundane offices and hotel rooms. It’s good, and amusing. But it might have been a classic.
Matt Damon plays a real-life corporate whistleblower who spied on Archer Daniels Midland for the FBI — but had a few secrets of his own. The film plays this as a black comedy.
Rated: R for language
Showing: Alderwood, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Edmonds, Everett, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Metro, Pacific Place, Thornton Place Stadium, Woodinville, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor