By Susan St. JAMES
In director Steven Soderbergh’s new film “The Informant!” Matt Damon plays real life agribusiness mole Mark Whitacre, vice-president of ADM, one of the world’s largest agribusiness companies based in southern Illinois. Crooked as a corkscrew, Whitacre spins across the screen with a manic grin and a firm belief in the goodness of man. When the FBI appears at his office with some questions about a Japanese competitor, Whitacre volunteers to become an informant, leading agents played by Scott Bakula and Joel McHale in a convoluted chase after evidence of his company’s illegal international price-fixing.
Soderbergh, known for quirky independent films, has gone to the headlines for a story about a 1990s whistleblower who is not all that he seems. Instead of taking the usual suspense thriller approach, Soderbergh has turned out a whacky satire about a capitalist system that allows mediocre businessmen the opportunity to rip off the world if they just stick together. Whitacre is the buoyant, garrulous narrator of the piece and his rambling voiceovers leapfrog through a stream of trivia as he manipulates a massive embezzlement scam under the very eyes of the FBI agents he’s helping.
Based on a book by Kurt Eichenwald, Scott Z. Burns’ script about a crook exposing other crooks in an elaborate con game to take over the company he works for is ultimately a game that doesn’t include the audience. Soderbergh’s surreal take on a twisted world spends most of its time exposing Whitacre’s multiple levels of deceit. Pathological liar? Check. Delusional narcissist? Check. Disingenuous crook? Check. Whitacre’s compulsive need to confide in everyone he meets leaves us, together with the befuddled FBI agents, wondering how this guy got a job in the first place. Despite an engaging performance by Damon, the movie drags. Entranced by its own cleverness, it treats Whitacre as a buffoon whose level of engagement with reality is never quite defined.
See you at the movies!