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Movie Review: THE INFORMANT! (2009)

Written by Christopher Beaubien • September 28, 2009 • Start the Discussion!

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Put Your Fibs Together and Blow!

People are usually very straightforward. While talking with someone, you have a good idea of what they’re thinking. And yes, it is very boring. That is why the title character Mark Whitacre as depicted in Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! is cause for relief. The man has a two-track mind. His habitual expression is pleasant but blank. Just listening to his outrageous thoughts makes me wonder how exhausting it must be for him to keep a straight face. The thoughts — my God, the tangents! His brain must be covered with zigzag tracks. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to read the thoughts of others, if only for the entertainment factor. Then again, Mark Whitacre is a rare breed. Only such a character — emphasis on character — could inspire such a perceptive and infectious human comedy that hides under a corruption scandal thriller.

In the mid-1990s, Whitacre is a rising — beaming — star at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), an Illinois-based plant that processes corn into food ingredients and distributes them worldwide. He looks like a stereotypical businessman — a paunchy, rug-wearing, spectacled dweeb in a cheap suit. Why, he could just as soon sidle up to you with a grin that says “Say ‘Hi!’ to your family for me” or “I’ve got something really juicy to tell you!” Don’t get me started on his mustache. Listening to him talk about corn and the difference he makes in people’s lives, I can’t help but hear Jim McAllister self-congratulatory tone from Alexander Payne’s Election (1999) when he says, “The students knew it wasn’t just a job for me. I got involved!”

Things get serious at the plant when Whitacre uncovers product sabotage, corporate blackmailing and tapped phones. He’s a straight arrow who loves his family and takes his future very seriously. He wants so much to believe in the best of people. He was an orphan, you understand. One minute he’s fretting about his home phone being bugged, the next he goes on a tangent about something as random as Saskatchewan — it always makes sense in a Whitacre sort of way. His high school sweetheart-now wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), who clearly sees his worry, encourages Whitacre to come clean to the FBI. Special Agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) show up at Whitaker’s home never dreaming what their destinies hold. By the time Whitacre blows the whistle on some other illegalities his company is making, we’re off and running.

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Why turn stoolie? He is doing very well at ADM – a horse stable for the kids is even being built across his mansion. The FBI takes Whitacre into their confidence, arranging tense situations where he wears a wire to exclusive meetings with his superiors. These scenes present the difficulty of obtaining what Harry Cole would call “a nice, fat recording.” At first, Whitacre has to be broken of his habit of narrating his every action into the wire like he was dictating for a sleuth novel. With the gleeful intensity of a Suzanne Stone, he goes about his business with strong sense of egomaniacal importance. Whitacre thinks “It’s just like a Crichton novel!” and he’s the hero of his story.

Whitacre is so ecstatic that he simply must show off his neat spy technology to his befuddled handyman. He goes back and forth between being gung-ho and then reasonably worried about his safety, not to mention his family’s. His boss has a funny idea about making “levity” out of a tense situation. The FBI corners Whitacre: You can’t volunteer and back out so easily. They hold his criminal immunity over his head whenever he doesn’t feel like playing anymore.

Like a juggler who can’t stop grabbing more plates, Whitacre then commits a stunning feat by revising his story again and again. As for keeping secrets, Whitacre is worse than a leaky faucet. He goes against good reason — and the FBI’s instructions — by blabbing to people he really shouldn’t be talking to. But because it’s Whitacre!, these jaw-dropping acts look like a method to his madness. For how long should we hold off slapping our palms to our foreheads? He’s a very likable dork. In a bad after-school special, Whitacre would have been a put-upon nerd who’d dream of becoming a millionaire and laughing. He is one smart cookie. Scary smart! On the other hand, he is so feckless that he is impervious to suspicion. But still, we worry that he’s flying too close to the flame. He just can’t stop while he’s ahead.

Matt Damon is one of our best and most versatile actors. He can jump from Anthony Minghella’s heavy drama The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) to Soderbergh’s less serious Ocean’s Eleven (2001) easily. Having gained thirty pounds to play Whitacre, this isn’t the first time Damon adjusted his weight for a role. In Courage Under Fire (1996), his first feature role, Damon lost forty pounds to play a soldier recovering from trauma and drug abuse. As Whitacre, Damon has the challenge of bordering happy-go-lucky zaniness on a bland facade. His interior monologues are delivered as though he were possessed. Out of so many of his fascinating brain spells, my favourite is his take on Polar Bears hunting for seals (“That’s a lot of thinking for a bear!”). The more I think of it, Damon’s Whitacre shares much more with Philip Seymore Hoffman’s Dan Mahowny, a compulsive gambler, in Richard Kwietniowski’s Owning Mahowny (2005) than appearance.

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Playing Whitacre’s concerned wife Ginger, Lynskey keeps her adorability in check, which makes her very understanding character credible. It’s amazing how she has developed into such cherubic roles (most know her as Rose on the hit sitcom Two and a Half Men) since her feature debut in Peter Jackson’s best film Heavenly Creatures (1994) as a sullen teenager who plots her mother’s murder. Both Scott Bakula and Joel McHale each played their FBI agents with a subdued facetiousness that eventually leads to a tightly wound exasperation. However, Bakula is more expressive whereas McHale keeps his cards close to his vest. Also watch out for some surprise cameos at Whitacre’s hearing.

Based on the Kurt Eichenwald non-fiction exposé The Informant (2000), this film was adapted by Scott Z. Burns who also wrote The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), which also starred Damon in a film that operates in areas of grey. The absurdity of Mark Whitacre’s case didn’t escape director Steven Soderbergh when he read the book. The exclamation point added to the film’s title is a jovial and very ironic clue for what would otherwise be a boilerplate thriller about a whistle blower, the best example being Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999). Subtler is the topsy-turvy camera angle that introduces Whitacre’s SUV driving upside down into the targeted ADM.

This wacky quality is not surprising for anyone (who is anyone) who saw Soderbergh’s Schizopolis (1996), which began with Soderbergh coming onstage to inform us that this will be the greatest movie ever made and if you don’t get it, it’s your own fault — “Now I give you SCHIZOPOLIS!” Last year, Soderbergh made the four-hour roadhouse feature Che (2008), which chronicled Ernesto ‘Che‘ Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) from his victory in Cuba to his doom in Bolivia. With The Informant!, Soderbergh continues to follow an exhausting trek of an always elusive character. What is especially ingenious is how our understanding of Whitacre changes once his intentions are considered from another angle.

Maybe he doesn’t understand himself so well either.

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The compositions of the shots always underscore the jokes without underlining them. Yet the shots, using colour filters and over-exposed location lights that threaten to bleed out so sharply, have a very high energy. They have Soderbergh’s smudge marks all over them — he also works as a cinematographer under the alias Peter Andrews. The images are at once self-conscious, off-balance, yet empowering. Damon’s short height is used wisely as he is framed against much taller men, kind of like Jodie Foster was as Clarice Starling, which is a very dramatic change from the Bourne movies. Each new city Whitacre goes to is introduced with sixties-inspired title cards that look more at home in a Quentin Tarantino film; my favourite establishes Tokyo. All of the retro interior design by Doug J. Meerdink work fitfully here. The inside of the corporate department look this side of Terry Gilliam — Soderbergh recalled seeing Brazil (1985) over a dozen times when it was released.

Another highlight is the zippy and very cunning score by Marvin Hamlisch. Because so much the film is played straight, the danceable score really sets it off the edge. Using an imposing array of rambunctious horns, kazoos, happy flutes, piano keys and a drum set. It gracefully goes from a pop espionage-type soundtrack a la James Bond that veers on parody and then surprises us with some disquieting horns and sad piano. Just imagine if Carter Burwell and Michael Giacchino had collaborated together. They perfectly complement the aggressively cheerful pathos and off-balanced mindset of Whitacre. These sounds could have come from a deranged cartoon elevator on uppers and downers. The most rousing on the soundtrack are titled “Sellout”. Interestingly enough, the scene with the polygraph switches gears to a Yee Haw-like western soundtrack that occasionally drips like acid.

Soderbergh (Out of Sight, 1998 and Bubble, 2006) is to America what Michael Winterbottom (Wonderland, 1998 and Tristram Shanty: A Cock and Bull Story, 2006) is to England. Never settling for one type of film, they explore a variety of genres and rarely repeat themselves. Like in 2000 when Soderbergh released his two films Erin Brockovich and Traffic in the same year, this year he made The Girlfriend Experience, which was very illuminating, as well as this one. Right along with this year’s In the Loop, a hot-blooded farce about the UK and US governments declaring war, The Informant! is skewers office politics just as successfully but with a much cooler poker.

Because most of the action takes place in the nineties, certain truths are not brought up, such as how corporations like ADM practiced overusing corn syrup in place of natural sugar, which resulted in an obesity outbreak on the American public in the coming years. Knowing what we know today, a slimy layer becomes visible across the film’s subject.

Given the economic climate and fury directed towards CEOs cackling their way to the bank, The Informant! is a very subversive and subtle film — not to mention hilarious — if wry dialogue and understated satire tickles you. It is also a strangely empathetic one as well. Getting us to relate to Whitacre is the most insidious blow. After spending so much time with Whitacre, I was still suspicious of him and wondered, “was that everything?” With Whitacre, it never is. You know that the guy with the mustache is always hiding something. Nevertheless, I imagine the real Mark Whitacre would eagerly take his family and friends to see The Informant!

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THE INFORMANT! Trailer

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