A whimsical and light-hearted spin on a serious story of corporate whistleblowing, The Informant! is the movie Erin Brockovich might have been if director Steven Soderbergh had been smoking some funny weed on the set (and if Brockovich has been a compulsive liar). Everything about The Informant! - from Marvin Hamlisch's carnival-funhouse score to the exclamation mark added to the title of Kurt Eichenwald's nonfiction book on which the film is based - hints at daffiness.
Soderbergh has taken Scott Z. Burns' script, which on paper must have read like a straightforward thriller, and given it an unexpected, and at times inexplicable, comic spin. Nothing that happens in The Informant! technically qualifies as comedy. But Soderbergh's off-kilter take on the material, and the gradual way in which he peels away the many, many layers of his protagonist, keep you smiling throughout.
The director is helped considerably by a terrific bit of dryly funny acting from a chunky Matt Damon, who wields reams of dialogue here as efficiently as he dispatched baddies in the Bourne pictures. The actor gained 30 pounds for the role of Mark Whitacre, a former biochemist who helped concoct a profitable additive for the food conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and by 1992 had transferred to its accounting department.
When Whitacre informs his bosses that a Japanese client is trying to extort $10 million from ADM, they call in the FBI. But Whitacre, concerned that the case could broaden and potentially taint him, secretly reaches out to two agents (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale) and tells them about a world-wide price-fixing scheme at the company.
Right from the start, The Informant! makes us privy to Whitacre's random thoughts via voiceover, clueing us in from the outset that there's something not quite right with this otherwise seemingly brilliant and sane man (''Paranoid is what people who are trying to take advantage of you call you. I read that in an in-flight magazine''). The trouble with Whitacre, which becomes clearer as the investigation stretches into years, throws a gigantic wrinkle into the otherwise familiar story of someone who dares take on a powerful corporation.
Soderbergh's decision to emphasize the loopier aspects of the case does not detract from the story's fascinating bizarreness, and there are moments late in the film when Whitacre's increasingly desperate plight becomes genuinely affecting. The Informant! may be cartoonish, but it is a cartoon inhabited by real people. Some of them just happen to be certifiably nuts.