Thursday, September 17, 2009

Review: "The Informant!"

What an odd little duck of a movie this is. I ended up liking it, but it took me awhile to reach that conclusion.

"The Informant!" is based on a true story, but -- as is usual with Hollywood -- a lot of the characters and details are made up. It's about a man who did a brave and heroic thing, but is anything but a hero.

Mark Whitacre, played by Matt Damon in nerdy glasses, mustache and a feathered hairdo we suspect is store-bought, is a biochemist-turned-executive at Archer Daniel Midland, one of those giant agricultural corporations that make the weird-sounding ingredients, many of them based on corn, on the labels of the food we buy.

From 1992 to 1995, Whitacre was a voluntary informant for the FBI, recording hundreds of hours of tapes of meetings between ADM honchos and international competitors, in which they agreed to set a price on lysine, one of their key products. It was the biggest price-fixing bust in the history of law enforcement, with more than $1 billion in fines levied. It was also one of the rare occurrences in American jurisprudence in which top company executives involved in malfeasance actually went to jail.

But director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, working from the book by Kurt Eichenwald, are more concerned with Whitacre's foibles than the transgressions of ADM. Whitacre is an intriguing guy, a bundle of nervous contradictions packaged in a bland middle America veneer.

Damon also narrates, although it's not so much narration as a bunch of his character's random thoughts in the moment, contrasting what he's thinking with what he says or does. Example: "I like my hands. I think they are my favorite part of my body." Much of it has to do with consumerist lust for expensive cars, clothes and other aspirational objects. This should serve as the clue that Whitacre is not merely an altruistic do-gooder.

Whitacre is urged to come clean by his wife (Melanie Lynskey). The lead FBI agent, played by Scott Bakula in a ridiculous haircut, immediately senses he's onto something big. When he and his partner (Joel McHale) bring the case to the prosecutors at the Department of Justice, the lawyers immediately question Whitacre's motives.

Why would a young guy making $350,000 a year and clearly on the rise at ADM decide to play turncoat? The G-men admit there's no way they could have learned about the price-fixing unless a high-ranking insider like Whitacre served them the evidence on a platter.

We eventually learn the answer, though Soderbergh takes his time revealing the inner core of the main character, and the film itself. It sort of stumbles along for the first 45 minutes or so, mild amusement turning to vexation as we wonder who this strange guy is and why he seems so self-deluded. Whitacre even tells his wife he thinks he'll become CEO of ADM after all the bad guys are sent to jail.

The movie finds itself around the one hour mark, though, and from there through the finish it gains strength as well as satirical bite. I can't reveal more of what unfolds without tainting the experience, since it's the tease itself that makes "The Informant!" the strangely pleasing movie it is.

3 stars

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