True-life character study finds humor in corporate price-fixing of amino acids
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale
Mark Whitacre is no moron. By all accounts, he’s an educated guy. He was president of Archer Daniels Midland’s BioProducts division—the youngest in company history—and that bespeaks a certain level of intelligence. For much of his time at the Fortune 500 company, Whitacre was an undercover informant for the FBI, and you would assume they don’t hire a lot of complete chuckleheads. Whitacre’s problem may simply be that he thinks too much. As portrayed in the loosey-goosey, true-life biopic The Informant!, Whitacre’s brain is a babbling brook that entertains every half-formed idea and every random-neuron non sequiter. Embodied by Matt Damon in workaday, low-glam mode, Mark Whitacre is that genial but infuriating stranger who sits next to you on the plane and just starts talking. For the entire flight. About god knows what. You stopped paying attention 200 miles ago.
Given the outrageous scenario that The Informant! lays out, it may be difficult to believe this film is based on a real story. But it is. When we meet Mark Whitacre, he’s a nondescript Ned Flanders-esque suit and tie working at ADM headquarters in exciting Decatur, Ill. Whitacre is spearheading some incomprehensible company scheme to culture a useful (and expensive) amino acid called lysine. One day, he gets word from a compatriot in Japan that an overseas competitor is sabotaging ADM’s lysine production. For a stiff bribe, Whitacre’s compatriot will reveal the name of the saboteur working at ADM. Likening this to blackmail, Whitacre’s bosses decide to turn the entire affair over to the FBI.
But when Whitacre tries to assist a no-nonsense FBI agent (Scott Bakula) with the case, the executive’s overactive brain and loose lips get him into trouble. Whitacre suddenly turns whistleblower and spills the beans about a major price-fixing scheme on the part of ADM and just about every other biochemical company on Earth. Eager to make a big corporate bust, the FBI recruits Whitacre to act as an undercover informant. Whitacre takes to his new assignment like a duck to water, acting like a junior-grade James Bond and trying excitedly to get as much dirt as possible on his co-workers. Whitacre’s loopy line of logic? If everybody else goes to jail, he’ll be the only one left to run the company!
Matt Damon does an amazing, dare I say Oscar-worthy, job of bringing the odd, fascinating, maddening character of Mark Whitacre to life. It’s hard to tell how much is documentary-accurate and how much is pure cinematic lark, but The Informant! is one hilarious, unpredictable character study. The script (based on the book by New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald) reads like some wacky ’60s spy caper crossed with Office Space. Director Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s Eleven) slings his camera with the same low-key, handheld style he reserves for his indie film outings (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience). Even the bubbly score by Marvin Hamlisch adds mightily to the atypical atmosphere. The result is a thoroughly unexpected comedy/drama that rumbles forward at deadpan speed only to whip around some major blind corners.
Assuming you don’t know the full story of Mr. Whitacre (I didn’t), there’s no reason to spoil the story by discussing much more of it. Suffice it to say, Mr. Whitacre’s adventures in spyland don’t turn out quite the way he (or anyone else) is hoping. Given the nature of the narrative, The Informant! takes a little while to build up a head of steam. It’s nice, for a change, to sit in a theater and have no idea where a movie is going. And when the revelations do start popping, The Informant! makes for zesty entertainment.
Despite the gravity of the situation at hand (a lot of people ended up in jail), The Informant! is clearly meant to be a lighthearted escapade. A major tip-off is the fact that Soderbergh seeds his cast with standup comedians like Joel McHale, Rick Overton, Tom Papa, Scott Adsit, Patton Oswalt and a few other surprise appearances.
True, not everyone will appreciate the crackpot humor on display in The Informant! Your like/dislike for the more straightfaced Coen brothers outings (Blood Simple, Fargo, Intolerable Cruelty) might be a good litmus test. Those looking for a vicious comedic attack on corporate greed and malfeasance might walk away mildly disappointed as well. Soderbergh and company keep the satiric bite soft and the atmosphere light. In the right frame of mind, however, The Informant! is a fabulously ironic confection on which to close out the summer movie season.