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Review: The Informant!

Soderbergh's state of cornfusion
By PETER KEOUGH  |  September 16, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for The Informant!

The Informant! | Directed by Steven Soderbergh | Written by Scott Z. Burns, from the book by Kurt Eichenwald | with Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey, Tom Smothers, and Dick Smothers | Warner Bros. | 108 minutes
The Informant! opens with a segment that sounds as if it had been culled from Food, Inc. In voiceover, problematic whistle blower Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) — an executive with the agri-corporation Archer Daniels Midland — is describing the many uses of corn. The stuff is ubiquitous; it's used in products ranging from soft drinks to packing material, and it pulls in billions for shadowy corn cartels — who, as it turns out, engage in illegal activities like price fixing. As a federal investigator notes in the film, "Everyone in this country is a victim of corporate crime by the time they finish breakfast."

But that's not what concerns Steven Soderbergh so much in his adaptation of the true story told in Kurt Eichenwald's book. He's more interested in the voiceover itself. It keeps veering off into its own world, rattling off non-sequiturs about ties in Paris and vending machines in the Ginza that sell young girls' underpants to middle-aged businessmen.

You can't say it's Whitacre's world, either, as his voiced thoughts become more and more schizoid, self-sabotaging, and, invariably, prevaricating. "Why do you keep lying?" an exasperated FBI agent (Scott Bakula) asks when it becomes clear that Whitacre's strangely ingenuous deceits have unraveled the agency's two-and-a-half-year investigation into ADM's crimes. Whitacre, perhaps jarred by the film's omnipresent images of Lincoln (the action takes place in Illinois), answers honestly for the first time: "I don't know."

Or maybe he does know. Maybe he does it because, like movies and acting, lying can be fun. With its bizarre associations, its extravagant persecution complexes, and its blithe megalomania, Whitacre's stream of consciousness fascinates more than the story itself. As the details of the crime are revealed through his fuzzy consciousness and Soderbergh's nicotine-tinted cinematography (the Red Cam process has to be the ugliest format available), the investigation and the double-crossings become increasingly arcane, tedious, confusing, and pointless — not unlike the shenanigans in Tony Gilroy's Duplicity. Frankly, I hope I never hear the word "lysine" in a movie again.

On the other hand, Whitacre's pathology, skewed perceptions, and cracked commentary provide a welcome alternative, imposing a playful, almost Dadaist narrative onto the sordid realities. Soderbergh abets him with party-colored title cards and a Marvin Hamlisch score that ranges from peppy sit-com music to pseudo–James Bondian riffs, evoking a feel of the '50s and '60s rather than the dreary early '90s in which the film takes place.

And Damon makes the case for Whitacre convincing. Corn-fed himself, with chipmunky cheeks, a bulging belly, and an unfortunate moustache, the actor has gone as far as he can with the theme of identity. He's been questioning it at least since The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and thereafter beating it to death in the Jason Bourne movies. No wonder there've been rumors he was dead. Damon sets the schizoid tone early on when his character speculates about developing a TV show in which a man calls home and someone claiming to be himself answers the phone. Too bad Whitacre never followed up on the project. He missed his true calling: making movies.

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  Topics: Reviews , Entertainment, Melanie Lynskey, Melanie Lynskey,  More more >
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