The similarities between Soderbergh’s latest corporate satire and Mike Judge’s Beavis & Butthead are pretty much nonexistent, but Beavis’s Great Cornholio is the last piece of corn-based humor I can remember laughing at before The Informant! came along. Matt Damon packing on layers of doughy flab to play a biochemical whistleblower isn’t exactly a formula for comedy gold, but the film is funnier than it has any right to be. When Damon’s Mark Whitacre cries corporate espionage — someone’s sabotaged the company’s new strain of corn with some very hungry bugs — his bosses call in the FBI, in the form of special agents Herndon (McHale) and Shepherd (Bakula), who file a report and tap Whitacre’s phone. But before you fall asleep, Whitacre’s got another bomb to drop. Once he gets Agent Shepherd alone, Whitacre informs him of a secret plot to fix the world’s lysine prices! Gratuitous exclamation point earned, baby!
If the plot sounds unbearably dull, you’re probably right, but fortunately Soderbergh and Damon never give us the chance to find out. Whitacre’s voice-over narration dominates the film, and he doesn’t seem too interested in the onscreen action, either. He’d rather fantasize about tie shopping than pay attention to the meetings he’s supposed to secretly tape record. Whitacre is closer to Maxwell Smart than Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise’s character in The Firm, which, along with Michael Crichton novels, is one of Whitacre’s favorite reference points), but the special agents assigned to him are not James Bond. They seem nearly as confused as the audience by the corporate financial scams being perpetrated, and their focus on closing the case distracts them from the fact that their star witness has some serious issues. For one thing, he doesn’t seem to realize that blowing the whistle will mean getting fired. With all the elbow room at the top created by federal indictments, Whitacre, a vice president, figures he’ll be in prime position to take over as CEO. Worse, he sees Shepherd as his super-cool new spy friend. “He’s such a good listener,” Whitacre says of Shepherd. “I could see us fishing, or whatever.”
In light of the housing-bubble bust and ensuing recession, it’s tempting to see The Informant! as some sort of larger commentary on something or other, but the story seems too weirdly specific to function as a serviceable microcosm for anything else. Without giving too much away, let me just say that Special Agent Shepherd turns out to be a time-traveling scientist who finds himself leaping from life to life, putting things right that once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home. Tonight, he’ll be quarterbacking the big game, and he needs to win if the Texas State Armadillos will have any chance of keeping their football program. “Al, find me a swimsuit model who can kick a field goal, and let’s get Sinbad out here to play the line.”
Wait, sorry. I just confused The Informant! with the plots of Quantum Leap and Necessary Roughness. As you might expect, The Informant! features considerably less time travel and football, and considerably more stuff you really shouldn’t know about before you go watch it. It should suffice to say, though, that The Informant! follows the Burn After Reading model of satire, meaning stupidity trumps corruption and the tone is more bemused observation than righteous indignation. Follow bespectacled Fat Damon as he inspires an investigation that threatens to bring the corn market to its knees, then immediately does everything he can to derail that investigation. You won’t learn much of anything about the current effects of government oversight on our economy (if for no other reason than The Informant! is set in the early-to-mid ’90s), but you’ll have a few laughs at the expense of our governmental and economic overlords, and you’ll get the chance to feel superior to just about everyone onscreen, even the characters who drive really expensive-looking cars. And that’s always at least worth the rental price.