Circumlocutory and vague

The Informant!

Matt Damon looks in the know.

Matt Damon looks in the know.

Rated 3.0

Officially, he was a “cooperating witness,” but here is why the movie about Mark Whitacre is called The Informant!

In the autumn of 1992, Whitacre was a high-ranking young executive at Archer Daniels Midland Company, the Illinois-based “supermarket to the world.” As president of the new BioProducts division, he had a responsibility to determine why ADM’s production levels of lysine, a disconcertingly ubiquitous corn-derived food additive, were dropping. And he had to do something about it.

Whitacre soon informed his bosses that the company had been sabotaged. That brought in the FBI. Then Whitacre informed the FBI that his bosses were involved with an international price-fixing cartel. That brought in the attorneys. Then Whitacre informed the attorneys that his FBI contact had bribed him, assaulted him and instructed him to destroy evidence. Also, there was the matter of Whitacre personally embezzling many millions of shareholder dollars. (“I wrote my own severance,” he later said.) That brought in the journalists.

And that’s not the even whole story. The whole story required more than 600 pages, in the form of Kurt Eichenwald’s best-selling book, The Informant. The movie didn’t have room for the whole story, so it left some things out, but put in some other things, like a fattened Matt Damon as Whitacre and an exclamation mark. It was directed by Steven Soderbergh, and is nothing if not conspicuously punctuated.

Who knew an insidious conspiracy for literal world domination would consist of a bunch of puffy executives crowded into a Maui hotel room nonchalantly drawing pie charts and doing long division with Magic Markers? Thanks to Whitacre, there is actual video of this. And it seems inherently cinematic, at least until you realize that it also seems inherently boring. “It was a criminal case unlike any in the history of law enforcement,” Eichenwald writes. Indeed, a case whose only deviation from banality was into absurdity. It’s almost funny that way.

So it’s not at all a bad idea to play this story for laughs. Aren’t we long overdue for a great black comedy about white-collar crime? Unfortunately, The Informant! isn’t it. There are a few reasons. For starters, making Matt Damon funny obviously isn’t something that comes naturally to screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who also wrote The Bourne Ultimatum. It does help that Burns so cleverly positions Whitacre as an unreliable narrator—a suggestible, distractible, delusional rationalizer—by funneling a good chunk of Eichenwald’s reporting into Damon’s manic voice-over narration. But if bipolar disorder really was the reason for Whitacre’s mania, and if the ADM corporate culture really was its catalyst, well, then that’s less funny.

Here’s another thing: The executive overseer of this production is Participant Media, whose self-proclaimed mission, “To entertain audiences first, then to invite them to participate in making a difference,” has yielded such earnest, self-satisfied outings as An Inconvenient Truth, Syriana, The Soloist and Food, Inc. Suffice to say it has not yielded many comedies. But with the Participant MO in mind, and Soderbergh being both the Ocean’s Eleven guy and the Erin Brockovich guy, it’s easy to see how he might seem like the go-to guy for The Informant!

Fine, but just remember that his recent movies also have included a long, dry biography of Che Guevara and a superficial and curiously sexless little ditty about a high-end hooker. Here, compensating for the fact of not much really happening within the story, Soderbergh stocks up on familiar, amusingly unexpected faces, inviting us to make a sport of wondering who might appear next. He gathers many put-upon reaction shots from the FBI agents played by Scott Bakula and Joel McHale, plus a few from Melanie Lynskey as Whitacre’s wife, Ginger, and punches everything up with solicitously sprightly Marvin Hamlisch music cues. And he lets Damon have a good time. The result, to borrow a phrase once used by a shrink to describe Whitacre, is “circumlocutory and vague.”

If the Whitacre of Eichenwald’s book remains unknowable, it’s not for lack of inquiry. On the page, his shifty motives became a page-turning mystery. On the screen, not so much. Maybe all we needed to know was that Whitacre wasn’t such a cooperative witness after all, but his talent for information apparently was boundless.