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The Informant! (2009)

WARNING: SPOILERS LACED WITH LYSINE AND GLUCONATE

“The Informant!” is a movie set in the 1990s but designed for the 2000s—with title graphics from the late 1960s and a soundtrack from...the 1950s? When were kazoos popular? It has, in other words, a real chance to be a cult hit. It’s too quirky to be popular. It’s too original.

Matt Damon, looking as horribly ordinary as movie stars are allowed to look, plays Mark Whitacre, a vice-president at Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM), a conglomerate based in Decatur, Ill., and, if memory serves, a company that perennially supports PBS programming. But its main business is taking cereal grains and oilseeds and putting them into food and feed.

As the film opens, there’s a virus eating both the lysine in the ADM plants and the profits that the conglomerate demands, and Whitacre’s getting the blame from the son of the boss, Mick Andreas (Tom Papa), for not solving the problem. It’s amusing but unfair—in the way that sons-of-bosses are always amusing but unfair. Then Whitacre gets a call from a Japanese colleague who says an ADM mole is responsible for the virus and he’ll reveal the name for $10 million. Rather than pay off, the higher-ups at ADM bring in the FBI, who tap Whitacre’s personal line to find out more. This bothers Whitacre—first a little, then a lot—and with his wife’s prodding he reveals to FBI agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) that ADM and the Japanese are involved in price-fixing the international lysine market. Which is how Whitacre turns informant. “Mark, why are you doing this?" Shepard asks at one point. “Because things are going on that I don’t approve of,” he says. “They’re making me lie to people.”

Hold that thought.

Whitacre is obviously a bit of a joke. He's dumpy with an out-of-date moustache, yet “secret agent” music plays as he drives up to his house or office, as if that's how he sees himself. When he’s wired he provides a running commentary on his day, and greets everyone by full name and occupation: “Good morning Liz Taylor, secretary.” At one point he calls himself 0014 because “I’m twice as smart as James Bond.” He ain’t dumb—at one point, a Japanese businessman blocks the FBI’s hidden camera, and Whitacre deftly gets him to move, and then deftly gets everyone in the room, the price fixers, to say the magic word: “agree”—but there’s something off about him.

He’s our narrator, too, providing a running commentary on...what exactly? He gives us asides, trivia, tidbits of information. Initially these asides have something to do with the action—all the corn, for example, that ADM puts into its products, our products, and how they use corn and chemicals to bring chickens to maturity in a fraction of the time that nature intended—but soon he’s talking about Central American butterflies, and how he likes an indoor swimming pool for its “year-round usage,” and how he thinks his hands are his best feature. I could see the movie again just for these asides.

He also keeps shifting his position. After his initial confession to the FBI he avoids its agents, insisting that the virus is gone and the price-fixing is over and can't they just leave him alone? Once he cooperates again, he has delusions about what will happen after the big reveal. “How can you possibly stay [at ADM] when you’ve just taken down the company?” his wife, faithful to a fault, asks. “Because they need me to run the company,” he insists. There’s a logic there that manages to ignore the entirety of human nature. It’s a void so large one doesn’t know what to make of it.

Throughout we think we’re in on the scam but we're not; that's the beauty of the film. After the big reveal, we get a lot of little reveals, and Whitacre, who has kept his secrets for so long, can’t shut up. Everyone tells him not to say anything and he says everything. He tells other ADM employees about the FBI raid before it happens. He talks to lawyer 1, lawyer 2, The Wall Street Journal. He’s been outed as a rat and merely says, “Did you see my stipple portrait? Pretty good.”

The second big reveal comes from an internal ADM investigation into Whitacre. While he’s been informing for the FBI he’s also been taking kickbacks—leaving his agents open-mouthed and the agency shifting its focus to him. First he denies everything. Then he blames the corporate culture. Then he says, “I only took a million and a half dollars.” This figure keeps rising. Seven million, nine million, eleven million. “But Mick knew about that!” he insists, as if that makes it OK. He blames a bipolar disorder—but doesn’t suffer from it. He takes refuge as an orphan—but isn’t one. He wears a toupee. Nothing about this guy is true. He may have been responsible for planting the lysine virus in the first place. And yet there’s no mea culpa. Even as he goes to prison he’s still prevaricating. He’s still off. You get the feeling he doesn’t get what he's done wrong. He still sees himself the hero, the white hat, of his own movie, which is why he’s the perfect hero for this one.

Damon, by the way, is blissfully obtuse as Whitacre, and there’s a supporting cast to die for. At one point I wondered, “Is that the guy who played Biff Tannen in ‘Back to the Future’?” Later I realized, “No, it’s the guy who played the guard in ‘Shawshank.’” Later still I realized it was both actors; they’re both in it. Tom Smothers shows up as ADM’s CEO, Dick Smothers as a judge. Giants’ fan Patton Oswalt is in there, plus a Cusack sister, plus Candy Clark. Scott Bakula, as the main FBI agent on the case, is needy, dismissive and ultimately betrayed—the most ordinary FBI agent ever filmed.

Whitacre did his deeds in the nineties but he’s obviously a protagonist for our time. He lies and prevaricates and lies some more. One can’t even keep up with it all. One wonders, as with so many of our public figures, if he even knows who he is. There’s no there there. There’s not even there enough to care that there’s no there. It’s a tragedy, filmed as a comedy, and the tone is exactly right. Welcome back, Steven Soderbergh. Break out the kazoos.

—September 21, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard