Can you twist facts into a comic pretzel and still come out on the salty side of truth? To judge by The Informant! — the nonfiction story of a wack-job corporate whistle-blower played by Matt Damon in a mesmerizing mindfuck of a performance — you sure as hell can. Director Steven Soderbergh takes the same biopic route he traveled a decade ago in Erin Brockovich, only this time with a cockeyed compass and a fit of giggles. There is devilish fun in this look into 1990s white-collar crime. But the jokes are the kind you choke on.
This is Damon like you've never seen him, and he goes for broke. With hair on his upper lip and a rug on his head, Damon porked up 30 pounds to walk the walk of Mark Whitacre, a four-eyed Cornell grad in biochemistry making big bucks in agribusiness at the Illinois firm of Archer Daniels Midland. Whitacre charges right at life, hustling the (toxic) wonders of food additives even at his own dinner table with the kids and wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey). But when his firm gets implicated in a global price-fixing scam, Whitacre agrees to cooperate with the FBI and wear a wire. Suddenly, he sees himself as James Bond, calling himself 0014, since he's twice as smart. If only the feds could see through Whitacre's own game of fraud and embezzlement. They do, but it takes years.
It won't take you as long, because Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum) cut to the chase. We know from Mark's loon-ball stream of voice-overs that he's already gone from bizarre to bug-fuck, and the jangle of Marvin Hamlisch's insistently perky score underlines his psychosis. In lesser hands, the nutso approach would do a disservice to the book that New York Times journalist Kurt Eichenwald spent six years reporting and researching. Fear not. There is clever method in the madness of Soderbergh, who knows that greed often wears the face of the banal Everyman. Just look around.
Whitacre is a feast of a role for Damon. "I'm the good guy in all this," he tells FBI agents Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Herndon (Joel McHale). And he believes it. Damon gives us the chilling sight of a man persuasively lying to himself in a scam that outdoes anything Soderbergh pulled in Ocean's Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen. Shooting fast and digital in just 30 days, Soderbergh invests the film with the breathless pace of a thriller and the gravity befitting a nation's soul sickness. Damon makes Whitacre recognizably human. Even his wife (a splendid Lynskey) chooses not to see the depths of his desperation. But Soderbergh sees all in his cracked comedy mirror. From Sex, Lies, and Videotape to Che and The Girlfriend Experience, he has searched for new ways to tell stories minus formula and rectitude. Maybe you think Whitacre's story would work better as a docudrama than a fun-house ride into one man's deranged unconscious. I beg to differ. Laugh you will at The Informant!, but it's way too real to laugh off.