Narrators don’t come much more unreliable than Mark Whitacre in Steven Soderbergh’s subversively funny and engagingly odd “The Informant!”
Watching – and more importantly, listening – to him will either amuse or infuriate you, depending on your tolerance for the ramblings of someone suffering from attention-deficit disorder spiked with a case of bipolarity.
In a sense, this whole film suffers from ADD, a bold choice by Soderbergh, as he skips blithely forward through a decade in Whitacre’s life. It’s a true story (based on a straight-ahead nonfiction thriller by Kurt Eichenwald) and a hard one to make sense of, so Soderbergh simply takes us for the whole wild ride.
In a way, the audience is in the same position as the people who dealt with Whitacre in real life. His story comes out in dribs and drabs – and you always have the feeling there’s something he’s not telling you. And you’re right.
When first seen, Whitacre (a deliciously high-strung Matt Damon) is a high-ranking executive at Archer Daniels Midland, one of the largest multinational food-processors in the world. Based in Indiana, he drives a Porsche, has a sprawling house in the country and spends his time figuring out new ways to process corn (he’s got a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry, among other things) in order to maximize the potential profit from each kernel. (For more on why this kind of processing is killing us, see “Food, Inc.,” still playing in theaters and available in November on DVD.)
But something is wrong. Efforts to use lysine (a component of corn) in other products are failing because of a mysterious virus in the lysine. Finally, Whitacre reveals to his bosses that he’s been receiving phone calls from their Japanese competitor, demanding $10 million for the antidote to the virus – and information about the mole inside ADM who is contaminating the lysine.
Instead of paying, ADM calls in the FBI, which sends an agent named Brian Shepherd (Scott Bakula) to Whitacre’s house, to tap the business phone line he has there. But then Whitacre throws Agent Shepherd a curve; urged on by his wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), Whitacre tells Shepherd that he has information on lysine price-fixing between ADM and its competitors.
The FBI turns Whitacre into a confidential informant, wiring him for meetings and gathering information for a case against ADM. Except that, once the FBI moves on ADM’s executives, Whitacre’s story starts to unravel – not that there wasn’t price-fixing, but that Whitacre himself may have been involved in shady dealings of his own, involving embezzled millions from ADM.
Soderbergh plays against the grain from start to finish here. Even as the actors are enacting a story of big-business skullduggery and law-enforcement ingenuity, the film is centered on Whitacre – who may or may not be telling the truth. Whitacre is spinning as fast as he can – and seems to believe his own spin. At one point, he explains to his wife why he’s convinced that, once all the bad guys are caught at ADM, the company’s board will have no choice but to make him the top dog – even though he’s the one who brought the company down.
Damon plays Whitacre like an Up with People alumnus: perpetually sunny, always upbeat, if disconcertingly scattered. Scott Burns’ script includes extensive voice-over narration by Whitacre – but frequently, in the middle of scenes, the voice in Whitacre’s head is talking and thinking about something other than what we’re seeing him do on the screen. His mind constantly wanders – and we get to listen in on his musings about how he feels about his hands, for example, or anything else that pops into his head..
Even more cognitive dissonance: As serious action unfolds, it does so against a Marvin Hamlisch score that could have been lifted from a 1970s episode of “The Brady Bunch” (though the story is set in the early 1990s). To Whitacre, he’s the star of his own TV show – the hero and a darn nice guy to boot.
It’s all built around a Damon performance that captures the manic high of a man who needs a lithium drip. Damon pitches his voice up in the ready range and keeps his energy level even higher; it’s a performance that defines the word boyish – when it isn’t defining the word childish.
If you’re on Soderbergh’s wavelength, you’ll laugh yourself silly at the chutzpah of “The Informant!” It’s a bold comic take on a serious story that will leave you feeling almost as dizzy as Mark Whitacre.