Friday, September 18, 2009

Resident Film Critic Chris Cabin Reviews -

Note: The Informant! is playing at most theaters in the city and in Brooklyn, go here for showtimes. Poster courtesy of IMP awards.

As has been widely reported, Matt Damon gained 40 pounds to play whistleblower Mark Whitacre, the mustachioed high-level exec at Archer Daniels Midland who became an informant for the FBI sometime in late 1992, in Steven Soderbergh's odd new film The Informant! Hidden behind a pair of thick frames, adjusting his toupee as much as his mood, Damon's Whitacre is plain, greedy and fantastical; the sort of man who sees himself not only as a corporate hero in any one Michael Crichton novel but also reflected in the Tom Cruise who embodies those righteous corporate ethicists on the big screen. He has ideas and big plans, ones that he believes could be jeopardized at any moment by a random tapped phone.

And yet, he is, as several people involved with the real Whitacre have opined, a sort of national hero. A biochemist who had to "learn business," Whitacre supplied hundreds of tapes -- audio and visual -- to the FBI between 1992 and 1995 that fueled the Justice Department's case against ADM leading to the agribusiness conglomerate paying well over $500 million in settlement and class action cases. The catch, of course, was that while playing avenger, Mr. Whitacre forgot to disclose kickback funds that may have reached more than $11 million. Faithful to his wife of 20+ years, the father of two adopted children and one of his own, he is a liar and a thief but it would seem, in Mr. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns' eyes, that every good corporate man has an accepted level of corruption going in; even the ones who want to clean up the joint.

Scored by Marvin Hamlisch in what, at first, seems like a bid at kitsch, Damon's guileful do-gooder opens the film by explaining, both to the audience and his child, how corn is in everything you eat, touch and steal. At ADM, his work has largely focused on lysine, the amino acid that his company frames their price-fixing scam around. It's his wife Ginger, dutifully played by Melanie Lynskey, who prods him into confessing the price-fixing scam to Special Agents Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Herndon (Tony McHale). Professional if just a bit zealous, the Agents sum up Whitacre as both brave and boring. In a brilliant bit of screenwriting, the action and dialogue are repeatedly overshadowed by Whitacre's voice-overs, delivering monologues on an array of throwaway facts including polar bears, being kind and tie sales in whispery chatter reminiscent of Godard's hovering prognostications from his 60s salad days.

An extension of these monologues, Soderbergh's aesthetic is a marvel of bourgeois bad taste. Made with the washed-out precision of cheap 80s television, editor Stephen Mirrione and production designer Doug J. Meerdink work with director/cinematographer Soderbergh to invoke the nausea of upper-class lethargy. But despite this bravura tribute to mediocrity, The Informant! Is not a sweet movie nor is it a placid one. Whitacre embodies the mindset of the current business construct: I'll open the closets as long as you don't stare at my skeletons.

Softened ever-so-slightly by the admittance of bi-polar disorder, Whitacre's infuriating inability to own up to his own malfeasance may not have been sold so easily if not for Mr. Damon who has rarely been so clever and never been as funny as he is here. Seeing as he is constantly surrounded by a rogue's gallery of lawyers and co-workers, Soderbergh pulls a masterstroke by casting many of the smaller roles with stand-up comedians and television actors -- Patton Oswald, Tom Wilson and Tony Hale all show up in minor roles. It plays directly towards Soderbergh's central premise: The characters primarily responsible for our current crisis are so off-the-chart self-serving, greedy and absurd, that you really have no choice but to laugh at them.

Even as it points to our current state, The Informant! also contemplates the grand lunacy of how we pick our heroes. Is Whitacre to be admonished or celebrated? Despite his presumptuous greed, he helped bring in one of the great monopoly schemes in history and remains, to this day, a good father and husband. As we begin to heal from the bruises of the Bush era and weather the outlandish accusations made against honest reform, The Informant! speaks to a generation where the concept of honesty has an 80% mark-up.

Chris Cabin is the resident film critic. You can catch him at AMC's Or win a pair of Yo La Tengo tickets to their Roseland Ballroom show next week by commenting on his recent Cab-tion contest.

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