Magazine | October 19, 2009, Issue

The Wrong Man

Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre (Warner Bros.)

Another Steven Soderbergh movie already? It was only last winter that the prolific director was inviting audiences to endure the turgid Che, his two-part, four-hour Che Guevara passion play. The viewing public largely declined the invitation, but Soderbergh was back again five months later, with the low-budget, high-concept The Girlfriend Experience, in which a porn star named Sasha Grey played a high-class Manhattan call girl shuttling from client to client during the financial apocalypse. The result was slick, timely, and inert; once again, filmgoers stayed away in droves.

Now we have The Informant!, an adaptation, with an exclamation point tacked on, of Kurt Eichenwald’s bestselling account of the 1990s price-fixing scandal at the agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland. The grabby punctuation is a good sign, evoking Soderbergh’s jaunty capers (think Out of Sight and the Ocean’s 11 trilogy) rather than yet another self-serious Hollywood take on corporate malfeasance. So is the presence of Matt Damon, our most underrated A-list actor, as the titular whistleblower, Mark Whitacre, an ADM executive who became the FBI’s mole, then its star witness, and finally an enormous, honking embarrassment to the bureau’s case against his company.

But the film turns out as weird as Whitacre himself. Soderbergh doesn’t just play up the farcical elements of the story; he whacks you over the head with them. The Informant! has a frenetic, clown-car score and a garish ’70s aesthetic — the movie’s Clinton-era setting notwithstanding — that evokes Laugh-In or The Gong Show. Fittingly, the Smothers Brothers both have cameos, and the cast is filled out with B-list comic actors and comedians (Tony Hale, Patton Oswalt, Joel McHale), playing lawyers, executives, and FBI agents. You’ll spend part of the movie trying to figure out where you recognize them from (is that the guy from Arrested Development? does that guy host The Soup?), and part of it waiting for the laugh track to kick in.

Even without it, the giggles come easily — for a while, at least. The first act, especially, resembles one of the Coen brothers’ broader farces: last year’s Burn after Reading, maybe, relocated to Red America and rewritten to feature the lysine business rather than the CIA. This tone is set by Whitacre himself, played with gusto by Damon, who’s no doubt relieved to be allowed to crack a smile again after going grim for The Good Shepherd and The Departed, and grimmer still in three turns as Jason Bourne. 

Tricked out in a lustrous toupee and a scraggly mustache, Damon’s Whitacre is a bumbling, ingenuous egomaniac, with a rich, free-associating internal monologue that roves from the pronunciation of “Porsche” to the color of a polar bear’s nose. He has none of the moral anguish we’re accustomed to from cinematic whistleblowers; instead, he treats the whole exercise as a lark, murmuring James Bond–speak into his microphones and poking eagerly at hidden cameras, to the despair of his handlers in the FBI.

It helps, of course, that he’s delusional. He’s convinced, for instance, that once he’s rooted out “the bad guys,” the Archer Daniels Midland board will recognize his service to the company and make him the CEO. (Cue the laugh track!) Faced with these flights of fancy, the FBI agents treat their informant as a holy fool. They idealize his bravery and moral courage (an agent who questions Whitacre’s integrity gets shouted down by his outraged co-workers), while doing all they can to protect him from himself.

But the joke’s on them. Whitacre’s delusions aren’t just harmless flights of fancy; they’re emanations from a mind that’s unbalanced, criminal, or both. He isn’t lying about the price-fixing conspiracy, and he eventually gets the feds the evidence to prove it. But he is lying about almost everything else. ADM and its co-conspirators are defrauding the public, but Whitacre is defrauding ADM. His double life, as a loyal employee by day and an informant by night, turns out to be a cover-up in its own right — a way of concealing, and justifying, a third career as an embezzler. 

Once this triple life starts to come unraveled, though, you may find yourself wondering whether any of this is really all that funny. For most of the movie, Damon plays his protagonist as a cross between William H. Macy’s hapless car salesman–turned–kidnapper in Fargo and Leonardo DiCaprio’s endearing con man in Catch Me If You Can. But after Whitacre gets diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the humor of the situation starts to leak away. Suddenly, Damon’s character seems less like an overfed, hyper-talkative Jay Gatsby and more like, well, the victim of a mental illness. And the crazier he gets (turning down a plea bargain, slandering his FBI handlers in the pages of Fortune), the more Soderbergh’s decision to play his dissolution for laughs feels cruel rather than inspired.

What’s more, if we can’t laugh at Whitacre, it isn’t clear why the larger conspiracy case is all that funny either. Because it happened in the Midwest instead of in Manhattan? Because it involved lysine? Because the ADM executives involved wore loud ties and ugly suits? The movie’s antic style works only as long as its anti-hero seems absurd; once he seems disturbed instead, and even tragic, the whole business starts to feel like a long exercise in condescension. 

Maybe that’s the point; maybe Soderbergh wants the audience to chuckle condescendingly and then turn around and make us choke on it. But it’s more likely that he doesn’t know what he wants to do, which is why his story unfolds first as farce and then as tragedy, and feels like a muddle either way.

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