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The Informant!

A Compelling and Frustrating Film

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

With the summer blockbuster season already a distant memory, the Academy Awards season unofficially kicks off with The Informant!, a comedy-drama directed by Steven Soderbergh (Che, Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13, Erin Brockovich) and starring Matt Damon as the “informant” of the title, Mark Whitacre, an executive-turned-whistleblower instrumental in bringing down Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), an agri-business corporation, for food additive price-fixing in the mid-90s. An occasionally compelling, sometimes frustrating film, The Informant! falls short of Oscar-worthiness with the exception of Matt Damon’s performance as the bumbling, stumbling, and fumbling Whitacre.

The Informant! picks up in the fall of 1992 as Mark Whitacre (Damon), the President of ADM’s Bio-Products Division and VP, convinces Mick Andreas (Tom Papa), ADM’s Vice Chairman, Terry Wilson (Rick Overton), President of Corn Products, and ADM’s security chief, Mark Cheviron (Thomas F. Wilson) that a saboteur has ruined their latest food additive product and wants millions in exchange for halting the sabotage. ADM understandably calls in the FBI who in turn sends FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) to assist with the investigation. Encouraged by his wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), Whitacre informs Shepard that ADM has been engaging in a longstanding lysine price-fixing scheme with its foreign competitors worth billions of dollars.

Shepard, his partner, Bob Herndon (Joel McHale), and their superiors convince Whitacre to wear a wire and record the price-fixing as it occurs. Over the next three years, Whitacre records hundreds of conversations, but his odd, eccentric behavior and increasing inability to differentiate between fact and fiction threaten to derail the case against ADM and its executives. Whitacre sees himself as a cross between James Bond (he calls himself “0014” because he considers himself twice as smart as the fictional Bond) and Tom Cruise’s whistleblowing character from the 1993 film,The Firm). He also imagines himself becoming ADM’s CEO after the FBI has completed its investigation and arrested all the wrong doers.

Adapted by Scott Z. Burns from Kurt Eichenwald’s non-fiction book, The Informant! (Soderbergh added the exclamation mark, presumably for mock-comic effect) shifts, sometimes abruptly, from broad corporate satire to Coen Brothers-inspired, reality-bending absurdist farce and, ultimately, to tragicomedy. Soderbergh and Burns can’t seem to decide whether we should laugh with Whitacre or at Whitacre (or both, maybe even simultaneously). Whitacre’s borderline delusional behavior, social cluelessness, and constant voiceover, most of it tangential but central to Whitacre’ deteriorating state of mind, suggest Soderbergh wanted the audience to only marginally sympathize with Whitacre, the better, apparently, to handle a third-act that spins film away from Whitacre’s role as corporate whistleblower to a character study.

Following the well-trod path for award-hopeful actors, Damon gained 25-30 pounds, had his hair frozen in place (Whitacre wore a toupee), and donned ugly eyeglasses to mo[re closely resemble the Midwestern Whitacre (or at least the stereotype of a Midwesterner). Not a bad move, considering the Academy’s record for rewarding actors and actresses who downgrade their looks for a weighty dramatic role. It might just work in Damon’s case, but The Informant!'s constant tonal shifts makes it unlikely it’ll receive coveted nominations for Best Director or Best Picture.