A lighthearted treatment of its serious subjects weakens “The Informant!,” director Steven Soderbergh’s insanely comedic drama about price-fixing, embezzlement and bipolar behavior — all relating to the flip sides of famously heroic and egregiously dishonest whistle-blower Mark Whitacre.
Yet Whitacre, as fictionalized by Soderbergh and actor Matt Damon, undeniably takes us for an entertaining ride.
Soderbergh revisits the corruption themes he explored in “Erin Brockovich,” along with the caper breeziness of his “Ocean” series and the lark-and-doodle feel of “Full Frontal” while also playing around in fresh ways in this adaptation by Scott Z. Burns of Kurt Eichenwald’s book.
Call this a fallen-hero drama presented as a corporate-malfeasance romp styled as a 1960s spy flick.
In 1992, Whitacre (a plumped-up, toupee-wearing Damon) is a rising executive at Illinois-based agricompany Archer Daniels Midland.
When revenue drops, Whitacre, who reads Michael Crichton novels, blames a Japanese competitor, citing sabotage.
His charge brings in the FBI, and at the urging of his wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), Whitacre spills a biggie to G-man Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula): ADM is engaging in international price-fixing surrounding the food additive lysine.
Sensational escapades and revelations occur.
Do-gooder-wise, Whitacre wears a wire and acquires valid goods on ADM for Shepard and his partner (Joel McHale).
Soon, however, the agents discover that Whitacre has also been telling lies — whoppers — and embezzling millions.
Soderbergh encounters tonal problems when presenting material that isn’t particularly funny — there is also a bipolar condition attributed to Whitacre — in the mode of a 1960s spy caper, complete with retro typeface, jazzy music and gentler-times dynamics.
Revealing little about what drives Whitacre to become one of the highest-ranking corporate whistle-blowers ever, the film also disappoints as a character study. Among extreme-liar portraits, “Catch Me If You Can,” “The Hoax” and Jacques Audiard’s “A Self-Made Hero” are sharper.
But slash your expectations and the film satisfies as an enjoyable jaunt through the escapism hatch, guided by a pro.
Soderbergh advances the action engagingly, the story particulars are amusing, and some of the statements of Whitacre, who labels himself “Agent 0014,” because he’s “twice as smart as 007,” are nutty gold.
Whitacre’s babbling-brook voiceover, pondering everything from the word “Porsche” to polar-bear noses, also scores.
Damon, handling such kookiness smartly and winningly, keeps things afloat. Both a casualty of corporate thinking and a wildly misfiring piece of unique pathology, his Whitacre keeps us invested even when exasperating us.
Starring Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey
Written by Scott Z. Burns
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Running time 1 hour 48 minutes