The Informant!

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Officially, he was a “cooperating witness,” but here is why the movie about Mark Whitacre is called “The Informant!”

In the autumn of 1992, Whitacre was a high-ranking young executive at Archer Daniels Midland Company, the Illinois-based “supermarket to the world.” As president of the new BioProducts Division, he had a responsibility to determine why ADM’s production of lysine, a disconcertingly ubiquitous corn-derived food additive, had faltered. And he had to do something about it.

So Whitacre informed his bosses that the company had been sabotaged. That brought in the FBI. Then Whitacre informed the FBI that he and his bosses had been fixing prices. That brought in the attorneys. Then Whitacre informed the attorneys that his FBI contact had bribed him, assaulted him, and instructed him to destroy evidence. Here it should be pointed out that Whitacre’s information was not always reliable, or complete. For instance, he neglected to inform ADM shareholders that all this while he personally had embezzled many millions of their dollars. (”I wrote my own severance,” he later said.) That brought in the journalists.

And that’s not the even whole story. The whole story required more than 600 pages in Kurt Eichenwald’s best-selling book, “The Informant.” The movie didn’t have room for the whole story, so it left some things out, but put in some other things, like a fattened, toupeed Matt Damon as Whitacre and an exclamation mark. It was directed by Steven Soderbergh, and is nothing if not conspicuously punctuated.

Who knew an insidious conspiracy for world domination would consist of a bunch of puffy executives crowded into a Maui hotel room nonchalantly drawing pie charts and doing long division with magic markers? Well, Mark Whitacre knew, and thanks to him we even have it on video. If that sounds inherently cinematic, don’t forget that it also sounds inherently boring.

“It was a criminal case unlike any in the history of law enforcement,” Eichenwald writes. Indeed, a case whose only deviation from banality was into absurdity. It’s almost funny that way, and therefore not at all a bad idea to play this story for laughs. We’re really overdue for a great black comedy of white-collar crime. It’s just too bad “The Informant!” isn’t it.

For starters, making Matt Damon funny doesn’t seem to come naturally to screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who excelled at making him serious in “The Bourne Ultimatum.” It does help that Burns so cleverly positions Whitacre as a distractible, delusional, unreliable narrator, by funneling a good chunk of Eichenwald’s reporting into Damon’s manic voiceover. But if bipolar disorder really was the reason for Whitacre’s mania, and if the ADM corporate culture really was its catalyst, well then that’s less funny.

Here’s another thing. The executive overseer of this production is Participant Media, whose mission, “to entertain audiences first, then to invite them to participate in making a difference,” has yielded such earnest, self-satisfied outings as “Syriana,” “An Inconvenient Truth” (which Burns produced) and “The Soloist.” Suffice to say it has not yielded many comedies. But with the Participant MO in mind, and Soderbergh being both the “Ocean’s 11″ guy and the “Erin Brockovich” guy, it’s easy to see how he might seem like the go-to guy for “The Informant!”

OK, except that Soderbergh’s recent movies also have included a long dry biography of Che Guevara, a superficial and curiously sexless little ditty about a high-end hooker, and the diminishing returns of “Ocean’s 12″ and “13.” It’s also easy to see how Soderbergh might be drawn to the story of a man once assessed by his shrink as “circumlocutory and vague.” But it’s not exactly encouraging.

Here, the director’s concessions to a comedic glaze come through in the sallow glow of his beloved HD photography, plus a few title cards in ’70s-style typeface and some sprightly Marvin Hamlisch music cues. Otherwise, Soderbergh gathers put-upon reaction shots from Scott Bakula and Joel McHale as the FBI agents and Melanie Lynskey as Whitacre’s wife, setting them against a stockpile of other familiar, amusingly unexpected faces. And he gives Damon free rein for self-enjoyment.

But the aura of detachment renders Whitacre’s plight dramatically inert. In print, the fair-weather whistleblower’s shifty motives made for a page-turning mystery. On screen, we learn only that he had a way with information, but wasn’t so cooperative after all.

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