Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Informant! / ***½ (R)

Mark Whitacre: Matt Damon
Ginger Whitacre: Melanie Lynskey
FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard: Scott Bakula
FBI Special Agent Bob Herndon: Joel McHale
Mick Andreas: Tom Papa
Terry Wilson: Rick Overton
Robin Mann: Ann Cusack

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a movie directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Scott Z. Burns. Based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald. Running time: 108 min. Rated R (for language).

There is a scene in Steven Soderbergh’s new comedy, “The Informant!” in which directing FBI agents sit aghast with their mouths hanging open during an inundation of criminal accusations against one of their civilian spies. That matches the reaction anyone might have to the complete oblivion with which Mark Whitacre seems to go about both his “espionage” work and his crimes. It is by no mistake that Soderbergh and his star, Matt Damon, chose to produce this real-life story of corporate corruption mere months after the biggest economic collapse this country has seen since The Great Depression.

The subject of this dark comedy is not the price-fixing crimes committed by agri-giant ADM and various other international agri-businesses in the early 90s, but rather it’s the strange and ultimately shocking conduct of physicist Mark Whitacre, who decides to go to the FBI to collect evidence against his employer, ADM, because of an alleged “conflict of conscience.” Whitacre makes you think of that adage that in order to be a good liar, you must believe your own lies.

Damon is a tour de force, in a sense, as Whitacre. The seemingly meek businessman is a far cry from Damon’s role as Jason Bourne in the popular spy franchise, but in his own way, Whitacre is nearly as successful as Bourne at what he does. He is so earnest that you can’t help but like the guy, even once you realize there is nothing that comes out of his mouth that can be trusted. He truly believes that reporting the price-fixing practices of his cohorts at ADM is in the best interest of everybody, and he will only be rewarded for it. It never occurs to him that such a betrayal will make him a pariah in the agriculture industry. Nor does it occur to him that all the lies he tells will have an effect on the FBI’s case against the corporate giant. As the lies are revealed—even through the final moments of the film—it becomes apparent that Whitacre just has no concept that his view is completely separated from reality.

The poor FBI agents who try to help him are so blindsided by his schemes that they might as well be some of the nameless dead agents left in Bourne’s wake in Damon’s more sophisticated spy films. Scott Bakula (of “Quantum Leap” fame) gets a rare film opportunity as the baffled Special Agent, Brian Shepard. Bakula’s own earnest delivery makes it easy for the audience to believe the FBI could be so easily duped by Whitacre’s oblivion. In fact, almost everyone in this movie seems so nice and unaware that it seems like they live in what would be a wonderful world, if it weren’t for Whitacre’s strange disjointed sense of right and wrong.

Soderbergh (“Ocean’s” trilogy) steers this happy, sad, quirky ship with throwback techniques that recall the espionage filmmaking of the 60s. The use of washed out filters and film stock makes the movie look vintage. Even the font used in his credits sequences looks like something from 40 years ago. The employment of Marvin Hamlisch to compose the score is a stroke of genius. Multiple Academy Award winner Hamlisch’s scores and songs were incredibly popular throughout the 70s, and here he perfectly captures the sappy, corny innocence of an earlier period in film. The film’s entire emphasis on an innocent outlook fuels the comedy behind what are really terrible financial crimes against the American people.

The film’s goofy approach to its subject matter gives it the feel of a “Hee Haw” version of a James Bond thriller. Perhaps that’s because instead of nuclear guidance systems, the secrets being revealed here involve corn syrup, but the characterizations also have a Podunk quality to them. Everybody from Whitacre, to the FBI agents, to the higher ups at ADM are just clueless hick versions of what you might normally find in a typical spy thriller, but they’re all playing at a bigger game than any of them understand. It allows us to sit back and laugh at what they’ve done.

They say laughter has a healing quality. In times filled with Bernie Madoffs and government bailouts for both the banking and auto industries, we could all use a good laugh over corporate greed. “The Informant!” is just what the doctor ordered.

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