Lies beget lies, and perhaps few people alive today know that better than Mark Whitacre, former President of the BioProducts Division of Archer Daniels Midland, a company that produces some of that stuff you can't pronounce in the ingredient listings of food you eat every day. Whitacre became an informant for the FBI and ratted out his colleagues (and himself) regarding an enormous price-fixing scheme, but the more the story unfolded, more of Whitacre's own additional criminal behavior revealed itself.
Right off the bat, I have to say that this is one of the more brilliant bits of screenwriting (mad props to Scott Z. Burns) that I've seen - not just this year, but frankly this decade or more. At first I thought I'd missed something or misunderstood the beginning, because we don't find out about ADM's real shenanigans until the scene where Mark actually tells the FBI. Usually in stories like this, we see the informant or whoever find out about dubious behavior or business practices, fret about it, and finally decide either to tell the authorities or not tell them. But here, you see something that you think might be the beginnings of something like this, and Mark fretting about it, but when he talks to the FBI he presents them with brand new information that we've never even gotten a hint of. And this happens over and over again; it's how the entire movie works regarding the Mark character. You think you know what's going on, you think you've reached the bottom of the hole, and then suddenly Mark opens a trap door and has even further to fall. I think this film must be even better on a second viewing, because knowing how deep the hole really goes would really inform how we see this character and how his story is told.
And the story itself, while it could have been a very straightforward story of business and personal corruption, is instead played for humor and fun. Instead of getting bogged down in details that wouldn't really help us understand this situation any better but would instead slow the movie way down, screenwriter Burns peppers just about every scene with Mark's random inner monologuing. He'll be talking to someone in the office and his mind will wander and start telling us about how polar bears cover their noses to camouflage themselves when they fish. It's endearing and funny, but totally irrelevant to the story. But as the story goes on and Mark gets further and further into a hole, we get less and less of that, and the content and tone of the inner monologue starts changing. He starts to coach himself on which lie to tell, which avenue to pursue, and eventually there's nothing left. He can't lie anymore. It's over.
The trailers and ads, while enjoyable, sell this movie way short. You'd think it was about this bumbling spy wannabe who frustrates the real professionals at every turn with his incompetence. Mark Whitacre is very smart, even about the secret agent stuff. There's a cool moment with a hidden camera where he plops himself right in front of the line of sight. The agents think he's just ignorant, but he soon moves, and then invites someone else who was out of the shot to another, more comfortable chair that just happens to be in the camera's view so that the agents can see everyone. He only sat in front of the camera to see, as close as he could, what the agents were seeing and to make sure everyone was visible in the shot. There's some funny naive stuff, too - the line from the trailers ("you don't have to narrate the tapes") isn't there, but the behavior that likely prompted it is. The first day he walks in with the wire, saying "entrance breached" as he walks through the automatic door and greeting everyone loudly and deliberately by name and by title, is priceless.
The cast is uniformly great, starting with possibly the best work Matt Damon has done to date. This is way more than gaining thirty pounds and putting on a fake nose ("the nose plays" - sorry, Ocean's 13 tangent) and a swirly rug. It's little things like the way he smiles as Mark, very different from the toothy brilliantine grin we're used to seeing from Damon. There are all kinds of layers in this character, which are periodically and systematically peeled back. Mark Whitacre is trying to be at least two different people, but is never - probably not even at the very end - truly himself. The extra weight and shlubby clothes might make this seem an over-the-top character, but it's actually quite subtle, and I've never been more impressed with one of Matt Damon's performances than I was with this.
Scott Bakula is perhaps the second most noteworthy performance in the piece, as FBI Special Agent Brian Shephard. He and his partner Bob (played remarkably well by stand up comic and "Soup" host Joel McHale) get attached to Mark; they carry a family picture around with them to remind them that he's a human being. They become very invested in his well-being, even after he bungles things by telling people things he shouldn't tell them, and even when the lies start coming out. But when Mark hits the bottom of the bullshit barrel, Brian is visibly hurt and betrayed.
Melanie Lynskey is wonderful as well, playing Mark's longsuffering wife Ginger, who in real life is still with Mark, even after his nine-year prison sentence (three times the punishment given to the people he informed on). And the rest of the cast is filled with familiar faces (such as Ocean's vet Eddie Jemison and Tom "Biff Tannen" Wilson - man, I bet he still gets that everywhere he goes ... I wonder if people still ask him to say "make like a tree and get outta here").
Special mention must be made of the fabulous - excuse me, that should be FABULOUS - score by Marvin Hamlisch, who hasn't written a film score in something like thirteen years (The Mirror Has Two Faces being his most recent until now). The man wrote the score for the musical "A Chorus Line." He adapted all that great Joplin ragtime music for The Sting. And he gave us misty water-colored memories of "The Way We Were." He is a bona fide legend, and this score is not just another score on his resume - it's right up there with his career bests. It's kitschy and cute, like a score you'd hear in a 1960s romantic comedy. And it's amazingly detailed. There's a moment when Mark is doing one of his inner monologues, and he makes a very short, offhand comment about Mexico. For just a couple of seconds, for just a blink after the Mexico comment, the theme that's been playing goes mariachi-style, and before you can say "Hah!" it reverts back as Mark continues his random musings.
I feel I ought to say something about Soderbergh here, but I'm not sure what. I'm not good at talking technical, and I know very little about the actual craft of directing. Soderbergh's record tends to stand side-by-side with each new film of his that you watch, and you tend to see each one in the context of what came before. This allows his admirers to defend him when he's being what other critics call "self-indulgent." That's such a carelessly used term, I think. What it really means regarding Soderbergh is that he makes the movies he wants to make the way he wants to make them. That used to be called daring and independent, but now I guess that's a dirty word if you feel out of the loop with his films. I'll concede that some of his films are less accessible than others (*cough*CHE*cough*), but if you don't "get" The Informant! I just feel sad for you. Because the only important thing to "get" is that it's fun. That Soderbergh is having fun. From the explanation point in the title (whee!) to the adorable score to Mark ruminating on the health dangers of being blotchy, it's an utter delight.