‘The Informant!’ Is Still Matt Damon’s Comic Masterpiece

With ‘Air’ now out, it’s time to show some love to the actor’s overlooked 2009 film, which contains his funniest (and also maybe his most heartbreaking) performance
‘The Informant!’ Is Still Matt Damon’s Comic Masterpiece

Today sees the release of Air, a very entertaining look at how Nike signed Michael Jordan, the biggest up-and-coming name in basketball, to a shoe contract in 1984, changing the company’s fortunes in the process. Full of 1980s nostalgia, Air is the sort of well-made crowd-pleaser that gives that overused term a good name, and it’s led by Matt Damon, who’s extremely likable as a scrappy Nike exec who bets his reputation on landing Jordan. Charming and wearing his stardom lightly, the Oscar-winner has a ball playing this hoops-loving everyman who uses a mixture of sincerity and salesmanship to convince Jordan’s mom (Viola Davis) that Nike is the shoe her son should be rocking with the Chicago Bulls.

The movie is a reminder how much fun Damon can be on-screen. Whether he’s a tormented hitman on the run in the Jason Bourne films or radiating kid-brother energy around George Clooney and Brad Pitt in the Ocean’s movies, he exudes a wholesomeness that can be quite appealing. As long as you forget some of the boneheaded public comments he makes, Damon comes across as a good guy — and someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously. Sure, by this point his long-running “feud” with Jimmy Kimmel has devolved into shtick, but his willingness to do wacky cameos in the recent Thor sequels suggests a guy with a healthy sense of humor. 

Not that Damon does a lot of out-and-out comedies — and when he does, they turn out to be commercial misfires like Stuck on You. So what’s his funniest film? For me, it’s no contest — pity it’s not a movie more people have seen.

In 2009, Damon’s career was rolling along at full steam. He’d recently starred in Ocean’s Thirteen and The Bourne Ultimatum, the highest-grossing in the Bourne series. He’d gotten great reviews for The Departed, the Best Picture-winner that had finally landed Martin Scorsese an Oscar. But in the midst of that hot streak, Damon reunited with his Ocean’s director, Steven Soderbergh, to tell the quirky true story of Mark Whitacre, an executive who worked at Archer Daniels Midland, a major Midwestern food-processing company. In the early 1990s, Mark went to the FBI, wanting to blow the whistle on the price-fixing going on inside ADM. The law-enforcement agents he talked to, played by Scott Bakula and Joel McHale, were blown away by how much insider information he had. What they didn’t realize was all the stuff he wasn’t telling them.

From that description, The Informant! doesn’t sound like a comedy. And, initially, that wasn’t what Damon and Soderbergh had planned, either. “Originally, Steven Soderbergh … and I thought it would be a much more straightforward story,” Damon said at the time, “but Steven felt that The Insider had already been made and he wanted to do something that tonally was unique, so he settled on this tone.”

Plenty of films are narrated in voiceover by their main character, who guides us through his thought process as we watch the story unfold. But few movies have wielded the device as diabolically: Damon’s Mark seems like an affable chap, but fairly quickly we notice that he’s not really talking to us. Instead, his voiceover is more of an internal monologue that we’re eavesdropping in on. Mark talks about traveling to Tokyo, where they sell “used girl panties” in the vending machines. (“How is that okay? That’s not okay.”) He talks about how polar bears hide their black nose with their paw so that they’re not detected in their snowy climate. He talks about disliking avocados. He just… talks, and often what he’s talking about doesn’t correspond to what we watch Mark do as he agrees to become an informant. But those random, bizarre observations are a hint of something troubling within Mark. This is a man who’s not well, as the FBI agents assigned to him will soon discover.

If you haven’t seen The Informant!, I don’t want to spoil the bizarre “Yes, this really happened” twists that occur, but suffice it to say Mark is rarely telling the whole truth — to either us or to law enforcement. The depth of his lies will eventually be shocking, but Soderbergh doesn’t shoot this story like a taut thriller. Instead, Mark’s misadventures are treated as screwball comedy, complete with a self-mockingly lighthearted Marvin Hamlisch score. Turns out, the real events are even weirder and more tragic if you go for laughs.

The trick to The Informant! working is Damon’s incredible performance. Soderbergh may view the material through a satiric lens — the director even hired a group of comedians, including Paul F. Tompkins and Patton Oswalt, to play serious supporting roles — but Damon never leans into the joke. His Mark is a slightly square, somewhat overweight small-town gent with a Ned Flanders-like demeanor and a mustache and glasses to match. But while there’s certainly something comical about this regular guy, Damon really doesn’t make fun of him. The All-American earnestness Damon often brings to his characters is just as evident here, which is perfect for a character crippled by delusions of grandeur. Mark thinks he’s going to be a big hero for calling out ADM’s corruption. (At one point, he jokes that he should be called 0014 “because I’m twice as smart as 007,” despite being hysterically incompetent as an informant.) 

But as the audience starts to grasp the depth of Mark’s cluelessness, the film’s dark joke gets progressively funnier because poor Mark isn’t in on it. He doesn’t think there’s anything funny about his desire to finally be recognized for his brilliance — a brilliance, he bitterly contends, that was never acknowledged by his coworkers and the people around him. But Mark will show them. He’ll show everybody.

Playing troubled, deluded individuals isn’t new for Damon. Arguably, his greatest performance is in The Talented Mr. Ripley, where his portrayal of the homicidal Tom Ripley was so chilling because of the actor’s benign pleasantness: How could someone so likable be a killer? Mark doesn’t do anything as dastardly as Tom, but Damon again proves quite adept at depicting a nonentity whose outer normalcy masks a profound break from reality within. In The Informant!, Damon never gets as grisly as he did in The Talented Mr. Ripley, which helps explain why Soderbergh was right to turn this material into a comedy. Great sadness ultimately awaits Mark, but before then, you’ll laugh along with the man’s audacity as he fools the FBI, his family and his bosses. 

Mark may have severe mental-health issues, but The Informant!’s cheeky tone doesn’t use them for comic fodder. In large part, that’s because Damon clearly loves the guy. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but Damon manages to keep Mark opaque while also being sympathetic. You wouldn’t want someone like Mark in your life, but Damon illustrates what an entertainingly bizarre person he was — so sure he was going to emerge triumphant, so misguided about what his fate would be. 

A decidedly offbeat movie like this probably never had a chance to catch on with the general public. When The Informant! opened in September 2009, it was met with mixed reviews and only so-so box office, dismissed as odd and self-indulgent. Soon after, Damon was in Invictus with Morgan Freeman, earning an Oscar nomination, whereas The Informant! was forgotten during awards season. And yet it remains one of his best films, his idiosyncratic portrayal of Mark Whitacre a masterclass in creating a fascinating ordinary man, only to reveal all the strange wrinkles inside his psyche that demonstrate how far from ordinary he really is. 

Mark doesn’t look like a con artist — not with that unfashionably bushy mustache and dopey air — which is why the film’s great running joke is how a seeming rube managed to trick everyone. Damon and Soderbergh fashioned The Informant! as a comedy, in part, to throw us off. The tone isn’t right, but then again, neither is Mark. We don’t just hear his thoughts — we’re in his head for the entirety of the movie. 

Turns out, that’s a fairly twisted place to be. We have to laugh because the only other sensible reaction would be to scream. 

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