Details: (M), 108 mins, In Cinemas 3 December 2009, United States, English
Synopsis: Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) was fast rising through the ranks at agri-industry powerhouse Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) when he became savvy to the company's multinational price-fixing conspiracy, and decided to turn evidence for the FBI. Convinced that he'll be hailed as a hero of the people for his efforts, Whitacre agrees to wear a wire in order to gather the evidence needed to convict the greedy money-grabbers at ADM. Unfortunately, both the case – and Whitacre's integrity – are compromised when FBI agents become frustrated by their informant's ever-shifting account, and discover that he isn't exactly the saintly figure he made himself out to be. Unable to discern reality from Whitacre's fantasy as they struggle to build their case against ADM, the FBI watches in horror as the highest-ranking corporate bust in US history threatens to implode before their very eyes.
An effortlessly funny riddle, wrapped in a chubby enigma.
The Informant! – based on the true story of an American corporate whistle-blower with a fab talent for fabulation – is a very entertaining and densely layered comedy for grown-ups with attention spans.
Speaking of densely layered, Matt Damon, in his fifth outing with director Steven Soderbergh, put on 30 pounds to play Mark Whitacre, an industrial biochemist with solid scientific credentials and an absolutely stellar ability to lead other professionals on a merry chase. The weight makes Damon seem cuddly and harmless, sort of like Winnie the Pooh were he to convince the FBI that there was rampant price-fixing in the honey field.
The action starts in humdrum Decatur, Illinois in October of 1992 and covers genuine events up until 2006. The production shot in many of the actual locations, including the real Whitacre's former home. Versimilitude in production design is just one of the fine-tuned delights of a tale that feeds into our suspicions that big business can't be trusted and it takes a certain brand of cocky bravery to expose the bad guys.
Whitacre is bland as can be on the surface and a bubbling cauldron of pop culture speculation and brand-name fantasising inside. We are privy to his near-constant internal monologue, which is a subtitler's nightmare and a native-speaker-of-English's delight. Whitacre is the only air traffic controller with a handle on his flights of fancy. As viewers, we keep expecting his improvisatory flight path to collide with reality but he's a deluded daredevil of deceit in the lumpy body and unfortunate hairdo of a selfless do-gooder.
Whitacre is the sort of fellow who implements time management by flossing his teeth in the shower while waiting for his hair conditioner to penetrate. He muses that polar bears match their snowy surroundings except for the black noses they have to cover with their paws in order to fool fish into surfacing. In situations where mere mortals would be sweating bullets, Whitacre is relaxed. His dorky confidence works in his favour.
Whitacre has told the FBI that he knows there is criminal price-fixing afoot in the lysine business and Japan is a major guilty party. This is surely one of the best movies ever to spin a lively chronicle of trust and second-guessing from purported manipulation of a basic amino acid.
Gleefully wearing a wire in order to gather evidence to back his claims of unfair practices in international agricultural circles, Whitacre is as discreet as a live hand grenade in a bowl of fruit salad. He brags about being agent 0014 because he believes himself to be "twice as smart as James Bond."
And who can blame him? Genuine FBI agents find themselves both shaken and stirred.
In light of the wholesome, church-going family man's allegations, hard working FBI agent Brian Shepherd (Scott Bakula) holds the view that, "Everybody in this country is a victim of corporate crime before he gets to breakfast." Any number of characters end up having to eat their words, with tasty results for the audience.
In early September 2009, Soderbergh told the press at France's American Film Festival in Deauville that, "As an American director, my happy place is a movie being made between 1966 and 1976." Although the events depicted in The Informant! actually took place in the 1990s, the director has given his movie a wonderful sixties-inflected score by Marvin Hamlisch. There may as well be flashing signs inviting viewers to grin.
Damon is effortlessly comic, playing a brilliant liar who's somehow too dumb to grasp that people doing illegal stuff don't usually reward the folks who draw attention to their heretofore undiscovered misdeeds. The supporting cast is made up of actors who melt into their roles, making the incredible true tale that much more believable. "We wanted to avoid the kind of casting where you're taken out of the story by saying to yourself 'Oh, look, that's so-and-so,'" Soderbergh says.
New Zealander Melanie Lynskey is adoringly supportive as Mark's wife, Ginger. It's not clear how much Ginger understands about what her husband does for a living or how cavalier he is about the "under" part in "undercover." But even though she's known the guy since high school we can forgive her any apparent obliviousness since, whatever the variables, we keep getting taken in. Ah-ha! NOW we know what's going on, we think. Wrong.
Soderbergh depicts a labyrinth any self-respecting Minotaur would be happy to enter, popcorn in hoof.
A ridiculous take on the whistleblower tale.
Steven Sodebergh has shot this deadpan, funny true-life farce about corporate chicanery in a kind of sick-yellow tone, like the colour of butter that's been left out in the sun too long. It's a neat and concise visual lick that suggests that there's something rotten at work here, in the corridors of America's power brokers. The settings of comfy hotel rooms, fluro-baked open plan workspaces and well-appointed offices aren’t folksy, but bland and antiseptic, and definitely heartless.
Still, any suggestion that this is going to be an angry movie about power and greed disappears once Marvin Hamlisch's ridiculously jaunty score kicks in, like elevator muzak warped into a cocktail time frenzy. Once the films titular anti-hero, Matt Damon, appears like some character in search of a feel-good comedy, Soderbergh's piss-takey tone takes hold and never lets up.
Losing his good looks behind a middle-age spread, a swooping razor cut wig, an Ed Flanders brush moustache, super-size spectacles, and baggy white-bread suit, Damon's Mark Whitacre is like a manic boy scout going for a merit badge in ethics. An executive and scientist at the US food giant Archer Daniels Midland of Decatur, Illinois, a small provincial city, Whitacre turns to the FBI when he finds ADM is part of a global price fixing scam. He starts wearing a wire to entrap the malefactors at ADM; meanwhile he buddies up with his G-men minders, Shepard (Scott Bakula), and Herndon (Joel McHale) who admire his bravery and selflessness and school him like a champ on a ball team headed for a pennant drive. Whitacre likes the spy stuff even if he shows no real élan for the gig (he feels that its helpful to 'narrate' the tapes, as in "I'm walking into the lobby now…")
Red flags on the operation rise early. Whitacre feels that in wiping out the bad guys he's clearing a top slot for himself in a new corporate culture at ADM, without realising that once the Feds, IRS and SEC get through there probably won't be an ADM. More than merely naïve, Whitacre is deeply delusional and his FBI pals quickly become sceptical: "What aren’t you telling us, Mark?" Whitacre turns out to be the worst kind of whistle-blower, a liar, con artist, and thief, whose sins jeopardise the FBI's half a billion dollar operation.
Whitacre was no ordinary crook and that's the juice and the fun of Soderbergh's very amusing film. The script by Scott Burns (and based on a factual book by Kurt Eichenwald) traps us inside Whitacre's do-gooding role-play fantasy. It's a good trick, since in part the movie is a satire on the way Hollywood films congratulate themselves for taking 'whistle-blowers' from fact and turning them into un-complicated heroes, and in the process fudge their messy and contradictory motivations. In other words, we want to believe that Whitacre is doing right and good, since that's what characters do in movies like this, right?
The big joke here is that the movie, like Whitacre, keeps switching on us; its starts out as a film about solving a crime only to become a movie about a criminal who starts out honest, who then used the FBI to disguise his own corruption, only to have the FBI confused about who to 'get' in the end, the 'bad' company or the naughty whistleblower?! It's ridiculous and that's the point.
Soderbergh’s sense of humour has always been wry and dry (Ocean’s 11) rather than thigh slappingly delirious. The Informant! is true to form. The jokes are kind of small and trivial. Soderbergh credits screenwriter Scott Z Burns with the film's best gag, Whitacre's 'confessional' voice-over. Traditionally, narration in movies like this one, smooth over transitions, explain fine detail, get us inside the character to tell us 'more'. Here, we are inside Whitacre's mind and that tells us precisely nothing about what's going on and even his thought processes seem weirdly skewed (he muses, at one point whether he should call his FBI agent minder by his first name). It's so funny, you don't notice it's the key clue to who Mark really is, a fantasist, completely absorbed in himself.
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