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Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) is a delusional, puffed-up corporate snitch who helps the FBI prosecute a massive price-fixing case in Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture/©2009 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.All Rights Reserved

3 out of 4 stars


The Informant!

  • Directed by Steven Soderbergh
  • Written by Scott Z. Burns
  • Starring Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale and Melanie Lynskey
  • Classification: 14A

Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has sometimes complained that audiences say they want something different from movies, but when they get it, they gripe that it doesn't fit a formula. That's definitely a risk with The Informant! , a bait-and-switch film that promises caper comedy with silly hair and dated-fashion costumes, and ends up with something that's much weirder - a marshmallow-light corporate satire.

In what amounts to homage to his own breakthrough commercial success, Erin Brockovich , Soderbergh returns to the subject of the individual fighting the corporation. But The Informant! is no Brockovich . Instead of Erin - Julia Roberts, the teeth, hair, push-up bra and working-class indignation - we get Mark Whitacre, a rich, charisma-free science nerd with a high IQ and few social skills.

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He's played by Matt Damon in an entertaining performance that's pumped-up in several ways: He's carrying an extra 30 pounds under boxy jackets, with a beaver-pelt hairpiece, aviator glasses and a Ned Flanders soup-strainer under his nose. Married to an unfailingly supportive and abetting wife (Melanie Lynskey), he's living the suburban Midwest dream.

In the mid-nineties, Whitacre was a real-life executive with the Illinois-based agribusiness giant ADM (Archer Daniels Midland). He became an instrumental figure in the FBI investigation leading to the largest successful prosecution of a price-fixing case in U.S. history. Unlike the corporate liars portrayed in Erin Brockovich and Michael Mann's The Insider , ADM wasn't giving anyone cancer. Instead, by illegally controlling the international price of the amino acid lysine, they made it hard to comparison-shop for cereal and soft-drinks.

The difference in the type of corporate cheating allows for comedy, and The Informant! , with its jaunty exclamation mark, is Soderbergh in his slight-and-sly mode. The movie is something of a return to the puzzle-box procedural style of his Ocean's movies, after his more experimental efforts with Che and The Girlfriend Experience .

From scene to scene, the truth keeps appearing and disappearing. Early on, Whitacre comes to his bosses with some important news: A mysterious Japanese man knows what the problem is in the company's lab, and for $10-million he can make it go away and ensure it never happens again. The FBI gets involved, with a couple of decent, regular-guy agents (Scott Bakula and comedian Joel McHale). After his initial resistance, Whitacre is excited about the role he's about to play, believing that it may actually be his stepping-stone to becoming head of the company. He tells the agents that there are much bigger fish to fry than just a bit of corporate extortion - there's price-fixing worth hundreds of millions.

He agrees to wear a wire to record his bosses and their international colleagues in the industry, and, bursting with pride at playing secret agent, he repeatedly almost blows his cover. He walks around the office muttering into his recorder (no one seems to notice). He starts to think of himself as a character in a John Grisham or Michael Crichton novel and, as well as passing along invaluable information, he also tells one big fat lie after another.

Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns ( The Bourne Ultimatum ) peppers the script with Whitacre's voiceover monologues, a string of fantasies and non-sequiturs. (How do polar bears know their noses are black? How can Japanese men buy girls' panties from vending machines?) Meanwhile, Marvin Hamlisch's jaunty Austin Powers -ish music percolates and burps along with a merry obliviousness, suggesting Whitacre's idea of himself as a worldly swinger.

Of course, the joke's on him, and maybe us too. Whitacre apparently suffered from bipolar disorder (at least, that was his legal defence strategy). Soderbergh suggests that the klepto-corporate mindset swings from delusional, grandiose highs to feelings of betrayal and worthlessness.

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The Informant! may be a gadfly of a movie, but it's not without bite: Could it be that the economic collapse wasn't just because of greed and incompetence, but because the corporate operators were so hypnotized by their own shell games that they could no longer tell the pea from the cups?

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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