Director Stephen Soderbergh hit paydirt a few years back with “Erin Brockovich,” a dramatic exposé of a nasty corporate cover-up.
Perhaps he felt that if he ever visited the dark side of the business world again, he’d give it a lighter feel.
“The Informant!” is a wacky, offbeat comic drama loosely based on the true story of a whistleblower named Mark Whitacre. An executive at agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland in the 1990s, Whitacre became an undercover operative for the FBI and helped expose widespread price-fixing at ADM.
So, how does one take a lightweight approach to such a somber subject? The answer is simple: Make your principal character a goofball.
Matt Damon (“The Departed”) plays Whitacre, an extremely intelligent but slightly off-center individual. Adding 30 pounds of fat, a bushy moustache and a bad rug over his shaved head, Damon jumps gleefully and fearlessly into the role of a bona fied nerd.
In adapting Kurt Eichenwald’s book to the big screen, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) have opted to have Whitacre serve as an unreliable narrator. We hear his innermost thoughts, most of which have nothing to do with the story at hand. As he gleefully jaunts through the narrative, he shares his views of trivial matters, tossing them off like rambling non-sequiturs.
Plus, composer Marvin Hamlish sets all of this to a bouncy, self-consciously quirky 60s-style score. If you didn’t know that this movie was supposed to be eccentric, the score settles the point.
The look and feel of the movie seems far more like the 60s and 70s than the 1990s. This is evidently purposeful on Soderbergh’s part. It’s as if he’s decided to place the action in an alternate universe that’s ever so slightly dissimilar to our own.
Damon is terrific, embracing his inner dweeb and skillfully breathing life into this bizarre character. As portrayed by Damon, Whitacre is so convinced of his own nobility that he manages to fool himself along with everyone else.
Scott Bakula (TV’s “Quantum Leap”) is also quite good playing FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard, a straight arrow who convinces Whitacre to help uncover the pervasive corruption at ADM.
As the story progresses, we learn that everything is not as it seems. Soderbergh’s movie is only peripherally about corporate corruption, although it presumes that malfeasance is widespread.
In the end, “The Insider!” is really about the capricious nature of the individual. (R) Rating: ***
* Avoid at all costs
** Only if you're bored
*** Good movie
**** Well worth your time
***** Be sure to see it