Previews are commercials selling a product. We all know this. But just as some commercials can make us salivate over the next cool toy, some previews convince us that a movie is a “must see” – to use a phrase often used in such previews. When I saw the previews for Matt Damon’s performance in THE INFORMANT! I was sold on one such cool new toy. The director, Steven Soderbergh, isn’t known for doing comedy, although the OCEAN’S films can in some way be considered comedies. But the previews of Matt Damon fumbling through an FBI investigation of an agricultural business giant looked quirky and funny, and Matt Damon looked genuinely comfortable in the comedic role. But that was in the previews.
In the film, those scenes are not supplemented with anything substantial. Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a well-to-do Vice President with the company Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), who wears God-awful ties, even for early 90’s, and conspires with his executives and their competitors in price-fixing. Whitacre consults with FBI agent Brian Shepard, played by Scott Bakula, and agrees to gather the evidence to bring down this conspiracy, which, given his status, made him the highest ranking executive to ever come forward in furtherance of a federal investigation. The scenes of him gathering the information, through audio and video surveillance are funny, including scenes in which Damon has to illicit the conspirators to say key words for prosecution. Bakula and Joel McHale play the straight men to Damon’s bumbling during these scenes very well. But most of the good parts of the investigation are used in the preview, and not much is added to them.
What follows the investigation, which takes place over several years, is where the movie really veers off any sort of recognizable path. It is less about Whitacre’s ineptitude at gathering information or testifying against the company, and more about his own self-destructive tendencies and bipolar disorder. The audience gets less laughs at Damon’s character and instead starts to just feel sorry for him. His behavior becomes so manic and inexplicable, you begin to even feel bad about laughing at his initial awkwardness. The film turns Mark Whitacre from a funny character into a sad one, and that was not what anyone was expecting after watching previews which geared us all up for a comedy. Sometimes surprises in a movie’s plot or tone can be positive. This is not one of those times.
Tony Hale has some good scenes later in the film as Whitacre’s lawyer James Epstein, which makes for another good performance from an “Arrested Development” alum, but that makes us look that much more forward to the eventual ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT movie for real comedy, not this comic/tragic hybrid Soderbergh gave us this summer.