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The West Wing
The U.S. government decides to go after an agri-business giant with a price-fixing accusation, based on the evidence submitted by their star witness, company-man-turned-whistleblower Mark Whitacre (Damon).
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So you’ve got this guy.
He’s not a bad guy; works hard, nice family, pretty successful (mansion, stable, Porsche in the garage. And a Ferrari). That sort of thing. The trouble is he knows something.
He knows that the company he works for, Archer Daniels Midland, is in conspirator in a global price-fixing scheme for lysine (it’s an essential amino acid, it’s in most everything you eat because it’s in high-fructose corn-syrup which is in most everything you eat. Just trust me on this). And even though the company is the source of his wealth and success, eventually the guy just can’t take what he knows any more and decides to turn informer.
And it’s all true. Ish. Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) the youngest divisional president in the history of ADM spent two years undercover for the FBI, gathering evidence and recording conversations of his immediate superiors colluding with their competitors to fix industry prices.
In the era of modern corporate malfeasance that sort of behavior is hardly a surprise any more, and it sounds like a strong basis for a solid thriller or procedural drama. So naturally director Steven Soderbergh has chosen to make a light, absurdist comedy out of the whole thing.
With a relentlessly upbeat and chipper Marvin Hamlisch score that sounds like Burt Bacharach on a permanent sugar rush, blown out highlights and constant blazing fluorescent titles out of a Woodstock retrospective it’s like it wants to be the best 70s rehash ever made (even though it’s set in the 1990s). But it’s all a dodge, a con, because like Whitacre himself “The Informant!” is not at all what it appears to be.
If that sounds like it’s all hopelessly over-clever, that’s because it sort of is. Soderbergh has been accused, not entirely unfairly, of disappearing up his own asshole at times. “Bubble,” “Tadpole,” large portions of “Solaris” spring immediately to mind.
Because of that it’s easy to forget sometimes just how talented a filmmaker he his when he control’s his more idiosyncratic impulses and focuses on telling his story. And while his ticks are in full force in “The Informant!” they never overwhelm the film itself they way they have in some of his recent work.
It helps that Soderbergh has cast the film exceptionally well. Damon sinks effortlessly into the role, never showing any strain in portraying Whitacre’s simultaneous underhandedness and chipper good-naturedness.
You almost feel sorry for Scott Bakula who does solid job as the film’s straight man, FBI Agent Brian Shepard, who guides Whitacre through his stint as undercover agent. But like all straight men he is destined to be overshadowed by Damon. Whitacre’s just too ludicrous and interesting for it to be otherwise.
The only thing that comes close to unseating Damon is Soderbergh’s decision to cast almost all of his authority figures with comedians from Joel McHale as Shepard’s partner to Tony Hale as Whitacre’s exasperated lawyer and even Dick Smother’s as the judge in Whitacre’s trial. It may be more of meta-textual pleasure than anything having to do with the film itself, but combined with the film’s general tone it’s hard to think Soderbergh’s not poking some sort of fun at the establishment.
But for the most part, it’s all Damon, who easily carries the film on his shoulders. His Whitacre is possibly the most banal man to ever grace the silver screen. His head is constantly filled with a running stream-of-consciousness commentary on things he’s seen, places he’s been and things he wants. He’s a traveled man of the world who knows what nice things are and wants them, a truth that’s given almost no hint in the dumpy face the man presents to the world. The only other thoughts that seem to occur to him are the odd musings on duality that come on more and more as the stress of presenting two faces to the world as a spy and loyal company man become too great.
It’s all fantastic bit of skullduggery by screenwriter Scott Burns (adapting Kurt Eichenwald’s non-fiction novel) filled with foreshadowing that never overplays its hand. The second half--after the arrests start to be made and everything, everything begins to unravel--is if possible even more absorbing than the first, as the lens moves to Whitacre himself and the twists and turns of his life are exposed.
You never really know what you’re going to get with Soderbergh films. Is he going to be to into himself, is he going to lighten up and just have some fun. “The Informant!” is Soderbergh having fun, and it’s a hoot to watch. With an Oscar caliber performance from Damon and a story so unique if it wasn’t true you wouldn’t believe, it’s the first really good film of the Fall. Which means it’s likely the one that gets missed. Do yourself a favor, and don’t miss it.