Whistleblower Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) would not be out of place in a Coen Brothers caper—a bumbling manic-American with an eye on the prize and a silly mustache—but instead he’s the perplexing subject of Steven Soderbergh’s strange new film. Based, like Che, on a true story of hard-to-fathom persistence, it follows corporate scientist Whitacre as he attempts to expose price-fixing by gargantuan food company Archer Daniels Midland. His years-long collusion with the feds, secretly recording meetings and passing along incriminating evidence, is, however, strained by his tendencies toward fabulism.
What ensues is more unnerving than the antics of your average Coen Brothers buffoon and yet reminiscent of how Burn After Reading’s proceedings were shadowed by burned-out desperation. Prone to Nicholson Baker–caliber internal monologues about polar bear noses and imaginary TV shows, Whitacre could simply be peculiar, mentally off, or, in his blinkered, self-interested, and nutty way, only human. But just possibly, he’s crazy like a fox. Well-compensated by his employers for his expertise, he lives comfortably with his devoted straight-shooter wife in bucolic Illinois, not far from work, and takes business trips to places like Paris and Zurich. But as we chase him down the rabbithole of his inscrutable mission, we gradually become aware of how our point of view is filtered through that of the singular Whitacre, who at times resembles a nerdy Kids in the Hall suit you’re not sure whether to laugh at or not.
The film’s tone starts out amused but becomes increasingly difficult to read, and Soderbergh throws a von Trierian wrench in the works with an obtrusive goofy-groovy score by Marvin Hamlisch. It erupts at the end of scenes in Woman Is a Woman–esque orchestral cues, and the unbalancing technique recalls the too-loud generic rock that grated against the Vegas scenes in The Girlfriend Experience. Soderbergh is often accused of a certain distancing tendency (a quality he thematized in his own debut), but just as characteristic is his penchant for self-conscious difficulty: counterbalancing each project’s underlying sense of gambit is a reluctance or refusal to allow a film to click into place, even if here it means exasperating a viewer tracking a character’s already cloudy motives.
As Whitacre, Damon draws on his familiar all-American but somehow strained boyishness, bustling about hunched into suits. That he can’t entirely disappear into the part (or most parts) might even help; it dovetails with Whitacre’s strange, casual way of shedding lies and layers when confronted, without revealing what lies beneath the outward impression of beleaguered earnestness. (There’s a neat, Soderberghian-savvy moment when Whitacre boasts about his stipple portrait in a Wall Street Journal article: to the obliviously self-obsessed, any publicity is kinda cool.) Among Soderbergh’s typically over-defined yet engaging supporting cast, Scott Bakula as a credulous FBI agent and Joel McHale as his more efficient bemused colleague stand out.
In his charge against corporate malfeasance, Whitacre makes for an inevitable B-side to populist heroine Erin Brockovich, and like her working-class lawyer, he’s an underrepresented type: neither the rumpled scientific wonk sticking to principles, nor, given his pay grade and mysteriously numerous sports cars, a company grunt in danger of imminent squelching. After a parodic run-up, the film betrays a certain respect for this odd little creation. Even as his tale winds to its inevitably mixed close—before an audience of dunderheaded Justice Department officials, the company’s hardball legal team, and Whitacre’s hilariously undermined counsel—he clings to what he wants. And with the Smothers Brothers cast as an ADM executive and a judge (with the attendant Limey-style joke on counterculture sellouts now pulling the strings), there’s a sense of amused gods smirking from above.