The Informant! (2009)
Starring Matt Damon and Scott Bakula
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
So it's another collaboration between Matt Damon and Steven Soderbergh. With a script by Soderbergh regular Scott Z Burns, based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald "The Informant! A True Story", it's the omission of that second part which very much colours the audience's expectation coming into this film. I haven't read the book or searched for news articles yet so I have no idea how closely it sticks to the "True Story" but after seeing the film I will definitely do so. I've read elsewhere that the real-life protagonist has said that the film is "very accurate". Certainly it's a story which takes so many twists and turns, going in so many directions all at once, that if you didn't know it was based on events which actually transpired, you'd think the writer was just crazy.
Another Soderbergh regular, Matt Damon, plays Mark Whitacre, a high level executive at ADM, a chemical company based in Decator, Illinois. ADM produces lysine, a corn-based additive, which as he explains at the start of the film, turns up in almost everything we eat. ADM is encountering production problems and suffering financially as a result. Whitacre tells his superiors that the plant is being sabotaged by a contact he met briefly in Japan, and claims he has been called with a $10,000,000 blackmail demand. The FBI, in the shape of Agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) are called in to tap Mark's phone, so as to capture any future calls. But Mark subsequently retracts his initial claim and says the whole thing is part of a price-fixing conspiracy among competing international lysine producers and that the phone was tapped by ADM itself. Thus begins a jet-setting adventure in which Mark, having agreed to become an informant, travels the world attempting to record or otherwise gain evidence of the conspiracy, which seemingly involves American, French, and Asian firms amongst others. Along the line he changes his story once more, saying that the meetings are about controlling volume levels rather than price fixing. There are further twists and turns to Whitacre's version of the story along the way, a period of more than two years, which is increasingly frustrating for the agents. Each time they have to confront Mark and ask if he's told them everything, and pleading with him to keep his mouth shut, you can see their doubts grow. As the case progresses, and Whitacre leaks the fact of an impending raid on ADM, it comes to light that he's been taking kickbacks to the tune of millions...
The film is essentially touted as a whacky, knockabout comedy. There are certainly many incidences of off-kilter humour, most notably in the "jet set" scenes, in which Mark seems to think of himself as a James Bond type figure; "Mark Whitacre, secret agent 0014" "Why 0014??" "Cause I'm twice as smart as 007"! Also, the voiceovers are priceless. In the opening scenes, he explains - somewhat manically - about the links between corn, corn syrup, lysine, and the food we eat every day. This is all good, because it's relevant to the main thrust of the movie. But as it goes on, they get more and more random. "I like my hands" he muses. "That metric system never panned out". "There should be a TV show about a guy who calls homeone day, and he's there, he answers, he's talking to himself, only he's someone else." !!! Some of them are just so left-field that they're hysterical. Over all, there's a dry, wry sense of humour threaded throughout the film. I can understand why broader audiences wouldn't "get it", but if you can plug into the tone, it's fantastic. But things are essentially much, much darker.
Amongst the main themes of the film are Corporate / White Collar crime, lying and deception, fraud, betrayal, self-delusion, illegal surveillance, and ultimately, mental illness. It's to his immense credit, and evidence of his masterful skills of direction, that Soderbergh manages to balance such grim elements with light comedy. The film's score is notably up-beat and jaunty, as if purposefully to counteract the brooding subject matter. It's almost fit for a cartoon. But I never found it jarring. It certainly does a huge amount to affect the film's tone and mood. Underlying the whole of the proceedings is sense of the utterly absurd. The conspiracy, whether it be price fixing, volume fixing, something else, or even if there's a conspiracy anywhere other than Whitacre's mind is absurd. Mark's erratic behaviour and skittish mindset are almost past the threshold of credibility. Yet it happened.
This is a supremely unusual, but deeply memorable film. Distinct in tone and content, I found it successful on almost every level. But I can see how another viewer might find it impenetrable, abstract, or just too odd. The balance of humour and drama is incredibly delicate, and whilst I think Soderbergh pulls it off with aplomb, others might feel one fatally outweighs the other. Damon is predictably strong in the central role, capturing the instability - and mania - of the increasingly deluded protagonist. Scott Bakula too is sterling in support as the sadly resigned G-man, who comes to realise that the prize he thought he had won isn't there. There's a wide-ranging supporting cast, containing many unfamiliar faces, but a few familiar ones, such as "30 Rock"'s Scott Adsit, Melanie Lynsky ("Heavenly Creatures"), Clancy Brown, Patton Oswalt, and Biff Tannen himself, Tom Wilson. One really has to think, however, that the film belongs to the real-life Mark Whitacre. A poignant coda shows him 10 years down the line, balding, physically degraded but still deluded. It's a fitting conclusion to a unique and notable story.