'The Informant!' Gets Cute With Massive Corporate Scandal and Blows the Story

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The Informant!
gets cute with massive corporate scandal and blows the story

As evidenced by The Informant! itNs a hell of a tricky thing turning real-life pulp into floss sugar. The story of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) biochemist-exec-turned-crooked-federal-snitch Mark Whitacre is a tragicomedy. Journalist Kurt Eichenwald spent five years trailing the bipolar fuck-up, and his 2000 book, The Informant, is so densely, richly packed with gut-wrenching what-the-what? revelations that itNs easy to speed through the 600-plus pages thinking itNs a novel. Which, for some reason, wasnNt good enough for writer Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Soderbergh, who frame their screen adaptation between quotation marks so they can giggle from a safe distance.

Their conceit is made clear with the film-opening caveat, which warns that, yes, while this may be a true story about Mark Whitacre—played here by Matt Damon, beneath 30 pounds of pudge and a toupee—some names have been changed and some events have been collapsed, “so there.” And then, the irony hits fast and hard: the score by Marvin Hamlisch, offering a 1970s best-of; the flat, blindingly washed-out look shot in HD but borrowed from an episode of Dallas; the stunt casting of comics (Patton Oswalt, The SoupNs Joel McHale, Paul F. Tomkins, the Smothers Brothers, Tony Hale, Rick Overton, Allan Havey) in dead-serious roles; title cards whose font went out of style with shag carpet and, um, Marvin Hamlisch. SoderberghNs sure got a lot of gimmicks—the manNs working hard.

Unlike the directorNs usual organic efforts—in which great style never results in overstylized—The Informant! feels overamped from start to shrugging finish. (And this is from someone who defends OceanNs Twelve as a Marx Brothers film directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.) The filmmakers have painted a 1990s story with a 1970s palette, and the tone clashes with the setting, like plaid on paisley.

This is a shame because buried somewhere inside the bag of tricks is a thrilling, heartbreaking, breathtaking, darkly comic tale about a deluded hustler and crackpot liar who decided to bring down one of the worldNs most powerful companies just to cover his greed and ambition, as well as his own sorry ass. Whitacre was a whistleblower, absolutely, but also far from a hero.

In 1992, he was a golden boy at ADM with a big problem: His attempts to create an amino acid by feeding corn to microbes were failing, thanks to a virus in the vats. And so he blamed his troubles on corporate sabotage—from Japan, like in Michael CrichtonNs Rising Sun, heNd often say—and wound up with the FBI tapping his home phone. Which led to his confession to the FBI that ADM officials were conspiring with competitors on a price-fixing scheme. Which led to his wearing a wire for three years. Which led to ADMNs discovery that heNd been embezzling millions. Which led to prison. For everyone.

The outline of that tale remains—in SoderberghNs version, Whitacre is still the rising star who goes supernova all by his lonesome. But thereNs no drama in his rise and fall, no tension, nothing except the nonsensical narration that Whitacre provides with a rambling inner monologue (“Guys in suits buying girlsN used panties . . .”) that grows increasingly paranoid the more in trouble he becomes.

Truth is, Whitacre is fortunate to get off with the filmmakers and DamonNs glib, flabby, pasted-on-smile caricature. Same goes for the ADM higher-ups, often reduced to bit parts here. The other characters, chief among them FBI Special Agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula, beneath a thickly lacquered helmet of hair) and Robert Herndon (McHale), also get short shrift; itNll take those who havenNt read the book in forever to figure out whoNs whom or why itNs worth the bother. Screenwriter Burns hasnNt condensed the book so much as cut and pasted from EichenwaldNs tome a few pages here and there; itNs less a narrative than a highlights reel. (During a preview screening, audience members were overheard asking neighbors, “Now, whoNs that guy—an FBI agent or an Archer Daniels executive?”)

WhitacreNs tale certainly warrants an absurdistNs touch, but Soderbergh and Burns get mired in the middle ground somewhere between Michael MannNs fist-shaking, heart-pounding The Insider (likewise a whistleblowerNs tune) and Steven SpielbergNs jazzy, light-on-its-feet Catch Me If You Can (with a brief stopover to hang out with the Barbarians at the Gate). What they wound up with: The Untalented, Bespectacled, Pudgy, Toupee-Wearing, Prevaricating, Kinda Nutty Mr. Whitacre. Now, whoNs conning whom?

The Informant! was directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Scott Z. Burns, based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald; and stars Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale and Melanie Lynskey. Rated R. Countywide.

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