The phrase “based on a true story” always makes me flinch, as it usually heralds a film that’s had any true creativity stifled by well-meaning fidelity to the facts. So I took it as a hopeful sign that The Informant! opens instead by blithely announcing that director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, in adapting the popular nonfiction account by Kurt Eichenwald, had no qualms about changing a bunch of stuff around. “So there,” their disclaimer concludes, and they aren’t even remotely kidding. Eichenwald’s serious, 600-page tome calls out for the hushed conspiratorial intrigue of something like, say, Michael Mann’s 1999 whistle-blower saga The Insider; instead, Soderbergh has transformed the material into something closer in tone and spirit to a zany ’70s comedy. (Not for nothing has a cheery exclamation point been appended to the title.) This bold gambit isn’t entirely successful, but at least a good-faith effort was made to fashion a bona-fide movie, rather than just a Reader’s Digest Condensed version of the source.
Sporting a Teflon hair helmet, a bushy Midwestern-dad mustache and about 30 extra pounds, Matt Damon plays real-life Archer Daniels Midland exec Mark Whitacre, who spent much of the 1990s funneling information about price fixing to the FBI—to all appearances for the sheer enjoyment of being a secret agent. (The Feds were originally called in regarding an alleged bribery attempt by foreign saboteurs, which turned out to be nonexistent; Whitacre voluntarily told them about ADM’s own malfeasance, in which he played what he claimed was an unwilling role.) Outfitted with microphones and cameras, Whitacre spent years recording various meetings and strategy sessions, struggling to coax colleagues into saying something blatant enough to justify a warrant. But he also spent those years implementing a top-secret project of his own—one that would eventually land this ostensible corporate hero in prison for more than eight years.
Right from the opening bars of Marvin Hamlisch’s zippy score, The Informant! treats this peculiar but generally straitlaced saga as absurdist farce. Not that there are jokes, precisely—although the supporting cast is studded with stand-up comics, from Patton Oswalt to the Smothers Brothers. But Whitacre, who in real life demonstrated enough savvy to cover his tracks for the better part of a decade, gets portrayed here as agribusiness’ answer to Maxwell Smart: a self-confident bumbler perpetually on the verge of demolishing whatever he’s trying to build. In the film’s most inspired and hilarious conceit, Damon’s Whitacre narrates practically the entire film but keeps veering off onto bizarre tangents, his addled brain somehow finding segues from lysine formulas to speculation about whether and how polar bears know that their noses are black. The more we long to understand him, the more dada-elusive he becomes.
Unfortunately, for all their creative hijacking of the source material, Soderbergh and Burns still feel beholden to it on some level. Had they simply ditched Whitacre altogether, using his story as the inspiration for a wholly fictional counterpart, who knows what giddy heights they might have achieved? Instead, they superimpose their absurdist conception of Whitacre onto a streamlined synopsis of what actually went down—the problem being that what actually went down, while remarkable in many ways, doesn’t really lend itself to groovy nonsense. Even condensed for a movie, Whitacre’s various schemes, lies and rationalizations are so convoluted that those who haven’t read Eichenwald’s book may have difficulty following them, and The Informant! repeatedly gets bogged down in procedural minutiae just when it ought to be taking flight. Like Whitacre himself, the movie only gets away with larceny for so long.