'The Informant!' is a hilarious answer to serious corporate-conspiracy movies

Posted: September 17, 2009

Steven Soderbergh's "Erin Brockovich" made $100 million and won an Oscar for star Julia Roberts, but it wasn't good enough to please some people.

There was one cranky jerk, I recall, who thought it was a creepy portrait of a self-promoter, a movie that purported to be about corporate polluters and cancer victims and was really about a solipsistic woman who leveraged her class-action work for free day care and a shiny red truck.

I recall it, because that cranky jerk was me.

Not a fun week to read e-mail. I was alone in detecting a vein of selfishness.

Or was I?

Could someone else have seen a darker side in the fable of the self-styled crusader, and could that someone have been Soderbergh himself?

Sheer conjecture, of course, but his gloriously strange new comedy (too strange for most, I warn you) functions like a cinematic rebuke to straight-faced, earnest corporate conspiracy movies (the movie pointedly makes fun of Michael Crichton and "The Firm.")

"The Informant!" is a fact-based story of Archer Daniels Midland VP Mark Whitacre, played for (many) laughs by pudged-up, toupee-wearing Matt Damon, whose eccentricities are meant to make him hard to read.

Whitacre stumbles onto an espionage scheme that attracts the attention of the FBI, leading him to turn whistle-blower as the investigation expands into ADM's global price-fixing activities.

Soderbergh is infamous for his will to experiment, and his movie is a radical departure from genre convention - you know, the multinational corporation as omnipotent institution of evil, a weaver of bottomless conspiracy, a conductor of unlimited surveillance, an employer of albino hitmen.

In "The Informant!," all malfeasance is treated as farce, and all business, good and bad, is conducted by badly dressed midwesterners who cloak the dirtiest deals in colloquial diction.

Even so, given the history of the corporate conspiracy movie, you hold your breath when Whitacre, already a snitch for the FBI, gets a visit from the ADM chairman, until you see that it's\\\\ . . . Tommy Smothers. (His brother Dick has a cameo).

The ominous becomes innocuous, even playful - the music (always a Soderbergh strength) is by Marvin Hamlisch, contributing his most amusing score since "The Sting."

But if there are no villains, and a dubious hero, who is getting stung?

Some viewers will feel that it's them. They'll want Grisham, and get sham.

Soderbergh fans, though, will rejoice, because "The Informant!" is one of those times when the director's taste for risk-taking pays off. And there are big risks here - Whitacre, for instance, often mentally checks out in the middle of tense scenes while Soderbergh crawls inside the character's head and treats us to his weird stream-of-consciousness monologues.

It's a quirky device that reinforces the idea that Whitacre is one weird dude, and it helps to think of "The Informant!" as an offbeat character study.

We like Whitacre, initially, because he protects himself by playing everybody - his company, other companies, the FBI, his lawyer, the other guy's lawyer, whomever.

He's fearless, and that gives him a kind of integrity. Our perspective changes, though, as we begin to wonder whether Whitacre is ultimately playing himself, and the line between what is self-preserving and self-serving begins to blur.

And there's something resonant in that. Could "The Informant!" be the ideal movie for our recent Age of Fraud, built on the convenient delusions of both victim and victimizer?

I don't know, I'm not Frank Rich.

Whitacre says his puny sins are nothing compared to the transgressions of his superiors.

But they are something, after all.

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