With its jaunty 60’s score, warm color palette and exclamation point in its title, ‘The Informant!’ promises to be a hysterical comedy about an inept and somewhat delusional corporate whistle-blower. Based on real events (chronicled in a book with the same title –sans punctuation- by Kurt Eichenwald), the film, set in the early 90’s, is about Mark Whitacre, a young vice president at the Decatur, Illinois, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) Company, in charge of their BioProducts division. Mark lives in a handsome home with his wife and kids. Mark is an interesting guy. From the very beginning, we hear him narrating his life. Not generally related to what is going on around him, we hear thoughts, rambling, stories, tidbits and observations. Some are funny, most are dumbfounding, but one thing is clear- he is sure that this stuff is fascinating (For example: “Polar bears cover their noses before they pounce on a seal. How do polar bears know their noses are black? Did they look in the water one day, see their reflection and say, “Man, I’d be invisible if it wasn’t for that thing.”). He wishes the world could know just how terrific he is. He just needs a platform.
Luckily for Mark, ADM has been engaged in illegal activity. Executives at ADM –Mark included- were meeting with competitors in Asia in order to control the price of Lysine. So when ADM brings the FBI in to investigate a case of corporate espionage, Mark comes forward and offers to be an informant for them. He agrees to take pictures, provide evidence, and wear a wire. As he does this, we hear his ever-present internal monologue, where he assures himself that what he’s doing is for the good of the company, that everyone will admire him for it, and that he will be asked to replace the people he’s throwing in jail.
His main handler at the FBI is Brian Shephard (Scott Bakula), an agent at the Decatur branch. Brian knows nothing about price-fixing or lysine, but he knows genuine incriminating evidence when he sees it. He likes Mark, and is patient even when he discovers Mark fudging, omitting or inventing some facts. He understands, as do we, that Mark just wants to be liked, wants to get a pat on the back, and wants people to appreciate him.
A couple of years go by. The FBI and the Justice Department are finally ready to bust the perpetrators of the price-fixing. One night, they raid the company and inform the executives of the investigation. A number of people, however, were expecting the raid. When Brian asks Mark if he told anyone, Mark replies ‘Well I HAD to tell Schmidty!’. A bit of a surprise, but things still seem fine, the main guys were caught unawares.
About this time, the other shoe drops. This is not Steven Soderbergh’s comedic take on his own ‘Erin Brokovich’, but a whole different beast. This is Matt Damon’s Talented Mr. Ripley, without the psychotic murderousness, but with even more pathetic and needy crazy. We find out shocking new sides to Mark and new depths to his delusions. And it becomes apparent that ‘The Informant!’ is not really a comedy, but a tragedy, forced into being a comedy. If played straight, it would be an unbearably sad and pathetic tale of a deeply troubling human being.
If there is one driving force in the work of Steven Soderbergh, it is experimentation. He loves to throw himself curveballs, try different genres, styles and tones, subvert modern norms and recreate older ones. His last few works were ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ (Small film with non-professional actors about prostitution), ‘Che’ (2 part, 4 hour long clinical chronicle of some major developments in the life of Che Guevara, leached dry of excitement), ‘Oceans’ 13′ (Glossy, expensive, star-studded caper film) and ‘The Good German’ (Extensive homage to ‘The Third Man’, using cinematic equipment and techniques used in the 40’s). Some of his experiments are successful (‘The Limey’, my personal favorite of his films), some less so (For my money, ‘The Girlfriend Experience’). Over here, I felt like his take on a whistle-blower tale was the first time in a while where his instincts felt to me like a natural fit for the material. Aside from the fact that this film would be an unbearably leaden prestige piece of Oscar-bait, a great deal of this sad person’s tale is so ridiculous that laughter is the only appropriate response.
There are, of course, serious matters that are lost in the translation to comedy- What the deal is with Mark’s wife (Melanie Lynskey), how much she knows and why she stands by him. The seriousness of the crimes committed by the people at ADM. Corporate realities in general –the greed and the inherited titles (When waiting for information from Mark, the president of the company tells him “You let me know, and I’ll tell my dad”). But a character this strange and pathetic needs a somewhat dissonant film to accurately be captured. That dissonance is most prominently displayed in the film’s score. The score is a throw-back to a wacky 60’s comedy, composed by the inimitable Marvin Hamlisch (Bananas, A Chorus Line, The Sting, The Way We Were). Hamlisch’s score would be totally jarring if not for the fact that it sounds that way for a reason: This is the score to the ego of Mark Whitacre. It’s big and it’s unavoidable (When Mark thinks he’s being suave, we’ll get a bit of James Bond-like music). It’s a big risk, and very, very hard to get over initially, but once we realize just how strange Mark is, it makes the film’s entire conceit come to life.
The first half of this film is strained, uncomfortable, and more than a little bewildering. Interestingly, it is once the other shoe drops -roughly half-way through the film- that the film allows for more laughs. There is a cascade of information revealed about Mark, and while this makes him more and more pathetic, it also shows him to be less clueless than he seemed. We drop the simply uncomfortable reaction to his ‘Aw Shucks’ tone in the beginning to a far more complicated reaction. There’s deviousness to him- he’s not helpless. Just the knowledge that there’s more to him than meets the eye allows the audience to breathe and laugh easier, even if it’s all a variation on his obsession with being liked and applauded. This even allows for a bit of pathos, when in a climactic scene, his internal-monologue crashes into real life, and he actually utters what we’ve been hearing in his head.
This film is not a great film, but it is a fascinating ride, a measure of which can be got from the real Whitacre’s reaction to the film. According to screenwriter Scott Z. Burns…Whitacre loved it. He’s thrilled to have a document of his story. Any man who would like this portrait of himself deserves a film, and Soderbergh, Damon and co. provided him with the appropriate one.