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Thursday, Sept. 24, 2009 03:16 pm

The Informant! A comic, tragic look at a man alone

Scott Bakula, Joel McHale and Matt Damon

Director Steven Soderbergh is well-versed in the art of deception. There’s a subversive bent that runs through most of his films and that’s never more obvious than in The Informant!, a dark comedy that audaciously casts its “hero” in a humorous and ultimately tragic light. Based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald that recounts the price-fixing scandal at the ADM plant in Decatur, the film throws us curveballs from the beginning as it recounts the tale of a man who was a legend in his own mind and ultimately the victim of his own madness.

A never-better Matt Damon stars as Mark Whitacre, a pathological liar who’s living a good life as an executive at Archer Daniels Midland, a corporation specializing in agricultural processing. In charge of a stalled project and feeling heat from upstairs, Whitacre concocts a story that a corporate saboteur is ruining his research and is demanding $10 million to cease and repair the damage. This extortion scheme eventually blows up in his face. However, once he has the attention of the FBI, he spills the beans on a price-fixing scheme ADM is involved with. Before you know it, Whitacre is secretly taping conversations and building a case against his bosses with agents Shepard and Herndon (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale). Thinking he’ll eventually be in charge of ADM because the board of directors will recognize he “did the right thing,” Whitacre’s sense of self-worth, paranoia and delusion eventually catch up to him as it comes out he may not have been following the letter of the law himself.

There are references throughout to the dual nature of human beings and Soderbergh fashions the film to reflect this. From Marvin Hamlisch’s purposely ironic score to the cheesy lettering used to announce the movie’s various locales, the film itself has a split personality. At once darkly funny, there’s a line of tragedy that runs throughout as well. While he never achieves the status of a sympathetic character, Whitacre certainly is seen as a tragic one. Brilliant and likable, if a bit clueless, his delusional state of mind and need to be the center of attention winds up ruining his life as well as that of his family and many others. His whistle-blowing actions may be commendable, but his untreated psychotic behavior causes unnecessary damage.

Damon hits all the right notes in fleshing out Whitacre’s need to be accepted as well as his cluelessness. The film doesn’t work without him or Soderbergh’s masterful touch in melding its two tones together. Complex and rewarding, these two and the strong supporting cast deliver an offbeat and memorable film about a man who wanted to be heard but didn’t know when to shut up.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.
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