There is something poignantly human in the way that everyone in Steven Soderberghs INFORMANT!, comedy of corporate greed and earnest FBI investigation, so completely believes in what they want to see going right in front of their eyes. The kicker is that the prime mover in all of this, Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), is so very anti-charismatic. And yet, it is his very corn-fed earnestness, his very ineptitude in the face of undercover work, that is so very convincing.
The greed is at Archer Daniel Midlands, agricultural conglomerate heavily invested in turning corn into pretty much everything else. Its the early 1990s and after losing millions trying to get the plump golden kernels to turn into plastic and high fructose corn syrup, among other things, it falls to Mark, bio-chemist turned management bigwig, to break the news to his boss that the Japanese have a mole gumming up the works. A payoff of millions is a small price to pay, so all involved agree, but when the FBI is brought it by the company, Mark gets worried. After wrestling with his conscience, and with the urging of his Stepford wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), he confides to Brian (Scott Bakula), the special agent assigned to him, that there is bigger crime going one. This one involves price fixing of an international nature and he, Mark, would like to be the one to help Brian and his partner Bob (Joel McHale), catch the perpetrators in the act, including his very own boss. The FBI agents, being only human, leap at the chance to make a bust of such magnitude. The fact that there is really no reason for Mark to come forward, jeopardizing a high-powered career and the salary to match seems odd, until Mark convinces them that he wants to do the right thing merely because it IS the right thing. There is something about the common man being gouged without even being aware of it that sticks in his craw. Brian and Bob are convinced. Their superiors are convinced, even when the evidence that Mark helps them collect seems a bit shaky. Even when Mark starts flaking out.
As the action unfolds in Soderberghs trademark spare and deadpan style, the story become more and more twisted, as does Marks almost but not quite perfect toupee. It is the perfect counterpoint to absurdity piled on absurdity by a guy who absolutely believes what he is saying to be the absolute truth. Until it isnt. Damon, with a perky sincerity and the ability to look everyone square in the eye, is dazzling as the paunchy nebbish who manages to make the world his straight man and woman, particularly Bakula and McHale. Each new curve ball that Mark lobs at them is greeted with the sort of measured incredulity that is the result of rigorous agency training and the desperate effort to still believe in what this little man is telling them. The odd thing is, that the audience wants to believe him, too. Soderbergh, juxtaposing an ordinary guy against corporate nepotism perfectly sets up Mark as the hero and lets everyone run with it. Even as red flags fly with the same abandon as the voice-over narrative by Mark, who ponders questions such as syllable counts in the German language during FBI debriefings and risky corporate subterfuge. The very banality of it, while peculiar, is charming, as though confidences are being proffered with child-like trust, particularly when those confidences show that Mark has his own problems with getting a grip on reality. How else to explain his absolute assurance that when the dust clears and everyone else has gone to jail, he will be named CEO of ADM?
INFORMANT! is scintillating and sly, but never self-congratulatory. Its agenda is of a higher nature, one that gently prods us into realizing that reality is a fluid thing. And to beware of dweebs offering something that is too good to be true.