Something isn't right about Mark Whitacre - and the movie about him - from the get-go.
Mark is a family man, a company man, bland enough to blend into any background and too meek for what the title of The Informant! tells us he'll do; blow the whistle on someone. It turns out to be his employer, part of a multinational conspiracy to fix prices on an unhealthy food additive made from corn.
The immediate "so-what" reaction to that scheme is understandable. Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns waste way too much time trying to make it interesting. To be fair, The Informant! is based on a true story but the boardroom scenes can lead to a bored room of moviegoers.
Like Mark, Soderbergh is hiding something - who knows what unless you've read Kurt Eichenwald's book on the subject. Eichenwald handled the material seriously. Soderbergh wants to make a farce. The Informant! uncomfortably settles somewhere in between.
Matt Damon does a solid job of portraying Mark, packing on prosperity pounds and playing up the eager beaver act at work. The enthusiasm carries over to his dealings with a pair of FBI agents (Scott Bakula, Joel McHale) assigned to investigate the price-fixing scheme. Tap dancing through suspicion or narrating Mark's attention-deficient thoughts, Damon again proves he's game for anything beyond his image.
It is tough to describe where Mark's actions lead without spoiling the late surprise. Suffice to say that he's not as smart as he believes, or as well-adjusted as Soderbergh spends most of the movie detailing. There are hints along the way that are clearer in hindsight but that's little consolation.
The Informant! may be a movie improving on second viewing, when the truth about Mark makes pop art title fonts and Marvin Hamlisch's cognitively dissonant musical score sensible. Until then, they're simply odd and distracting. And who can afford paying twice on a hunch?
What makes this story deserve the Hollywood treatment is Mark's true nature that Soderbergh hides until it's almost too late. By telling the tale chronologically, we're forced into the frustration and confusion that everyone from Mark's bosses to the FBI felt chasing his ghosts.
If a movie ever begged for the time-flip conceit of Michael Clayton, or the jaunty strut of Catch Me If You Can, it's this one. We get traces of the latter in the last 20 minutes, when Mark begins spilling beans in bushels and everyone realizes they've been "had." It's fun to be fooled by a movie but not if the sole payoff arrives late from shallow left field and it's a chore to get there.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Tom Papa, Melanie Lynskey, Tom Wilson
Screenplay: Scott Z. Burns, based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald
Rating: R; profanity
Running time: 108 min.