Originally published in the 9/20 edition of The Source.
Had anyone but Mark Whitacre been involved in exposing price-fixing in the lysine industry, I doubt the new film "The Informant!" would be worth watching.
Face it: Despite the fact that lysine manufacturer ADM was fixing prices on a product that appears in hundreds of products, robbing the American public of millions of dollars, no one wants to see a movie that is, essentially, about the price of food extracts. Wall Street and the tobacco industry have made for sexy corporate thrillers; audiences probably wouldn't get too worked up about corn.
But at the center of this case was Mark Whitacre, the highest-ranking corporate whistleblower in U.S. history. As played by Matt Damon in Steven Soderbergh's "The Informant!," Whitacre is a doughy, bumbling executive whose clumsiness and naivety frustrated the FBI, and whose secrets nearly unraveled a 7-year investigation.
The story begins in 1992, as Whitacre approaches his bosses to report being contacted by a possible extortionist. The execs soon call in the FBI and Whitacre is soon revealing important information to Agent Brian Shephard (Scott Bakula). It seems that Whitacre is aware of price fixing in the lysine business, a scheme bilking consumers across the world of millions of dollars. Whitacre agrees to act as an informant for the FBI, taping and transcribing conversations to help trap his bosses.
So far, we're in typical corporate thriller territory. What elevates the story into the realm of the absurd is Whitacre's bizarre behavior. He quits returning FBI phone calls, and then begins saying that everything has changed and there's no case, only to reveal even more information about the underhanded dealings surrounding him. He bumbles through sting operations, stopping to stare directly into surveillance cameras and, at one point, even fumbling with a tape recorder concealed in his briefcase during a corporate meeting. A fan of the books "Rising Sun" and "The Firm," Whitacre is fueled by his desire to be "the guy in the white hat" and the chance to play a role in the espionage game he so loves; it's just that he's no good at the spy game.
Or, as later revelations show, maybe he's a bit more skilled at covering up the truth than he's suggested.
Soderbergh, never content to make the same film twice, is not interested in the details of corporate malfeasance or structuring the film like a standard thriller. He's more interested in the character of Whitacre, a man convinced of his own brilliance, prone to flights of fancy and daydreams (Damon's constant interior monologues, about everything from butterflies to hotel pools, are hilarious), and unsure of where his loyalty lies or the consequences of his cooperation with the FBI. At one point Whitacre muses about his chance to take over the company once he exposes all his bosses.
Soderbergh is well aware of the inherent dryness of this story's setting and seems to delight in the deadpan, dully serious corn industry, which is paralleled by revelations that constantly get more and more bizarre. Many of the laughs in the film come not from jokes or gags but simply from the pure absurdity of the situation, and the constant twists and turns Whitacre puts the FBI through. He populates minor roles with popular comedians - including Paul F. Tompkins, Tony Hale, Joel McHale and Patton Oswalt. Even though they play relatively straight characters, their mere appearance will likely elicit chuckles and poke fun at the seriousness of the situation. Marvin Hamlisch's jazzy score also adds a nice little counterpoint to the relative blandness of the surroundings.
But make no mistake, this is Damon's film. With an extra 30 pounds, a horrible hairpiece and even worse mustache, Damon perfectly embodies the role of the fat, boring businessman prone to Walter Mitty-like daydreams of heroism. Damon has an underrated comedic ability that serves him well here; he finds humor in simple reaction shots and line delivery, and even shows a flair for subtle physical comedy.
But there's also the hint of something deeper and sadder here. Damon plays Whitacre as an almost comedic counterpoint to his character from "The Talented Mr. Ripley," a man who doesn't know the next step to take and is hiding secret upon secret. Soderbergh plays many revelations close to the vest, keeping vital information about Whitacre hidden from both the characters and the audience, and not always letting each piece connect. The film sometimes gets lost amid the plot's complexity and the film's dry humor may grate on some filmgoers' patience. But for the most part, Soderbergh and Damon present an intriguing, fascinating and very funny portrait of the most complex, bizarre and polarizing "American hero" ever known.