Not Quite Comedy

'The Informant!'

The Informant! both gripped and frustrated me. This is Steven Soderbergh’s semi-fictional adaptation of Kurt Eichenwald’s factual account of the 1990s Archer Daniels Midland scandal, a conspiracy by a conglomerate to fix prices internationally. One of the ADM executives, Mark Whitacre, brought the plot to light but was so tainted by his own misdeeds (taking kickbacks) that he ended up not as a witness for the Justice Department but as another target of its investigation. The final irony was that, though no one would have been convicted had Whitacre not helped the FBI, he was handed a stiffer prison term than the major conspirators.

The most interesting parts of the film have to do with the methods the agents employed to nail the suspects—the use of hidden cameras and tape recorders during meetings in which the executives might reveal the fraud—and the way seemingly cut-and-dried revelations led to more startling ones, especially the unearthing of Whitacre’s dishonesty. The script by Scott Z. Burns is artful in the way it drops hints throughout the first third of the story about Whitacre’s secrets, then reveals them one by one.

So why my frustration? Well, take another look at the title. See the exclamation point? Remember Airplane! and Top Secret! Yes, the director and the scriptwriter have elected to make a comedy out of the material. (And Eichenwald, who served as one of the movie’s executive producers, gave his blessing to this approach.) It might have led to a successful marriage of genres, the way Richard Lester’s How I Won the War told a World War II saga in the style of farce, or the way Euripides made the tragedy of the House of Atreus funny in Orestes, back in the fifth century BC. But, having made a daring stylistic choice, Soderbergh and Burns seem to have pulled back from their own design. The result is not a journalistic exposé presented as comedy or satire, but a relatively straightforward drama with a monstrously funny, even cartoonish version of Whitacre rattling around inside the drama. One character cannot transform a genre. When Stanley Kubrick made Dr. Strangelove, he didn’t insert one caricatured general into a cast of normal military officers and politicians. He cartooned the whole mob. The Informant! is a dysfunctional cinematic mutation.

Yet it’s a striking, worthwhile experiment. For connoisseurs of acting, Matt Damon’s performance in the title role is a triumph of transformation. The handsome, rather truculent Irish face is here as pouchy as a squirrel’s, and the double chin emphasizes the character’s fatuousness. Gone is the actor’s usual athletic stride, replaced by a stiff-necked, boxy walk that declares that the 1950s Organization Man is eternal. Near the conclusion, when a judge who is about to sentence Whitacre sadly observes that a man of his intelligence could have been a CEO instead of a criminal, Damon’s face beams, and he sweeps the courtroom with an applause-begging grin. In an unadulterated comedy this Clouseau-like routine would have earned a belly laugh, but in this not-quite-comedy the expression seems psychopathic rather than the farcical.

For nothing else in The Informant! (except the soundtrack’s music) supports Damon’s comedic performance. The other characters are played straight. Scott Bakula and Joel McHale neatly understate their roles as federal agents; their mounting frustration elicited more sympathy from me than I ever knew I could feel for the FBI. Melanie Lynskey makes us empathize with Mrs. Whitacre’s pain. And the various ADM guys, though despicable, aren’t caricatured. Only Ann Dowd, as a senior FBI official, seems in on the joke, and all her eye-popping and jaw-dropping becomes tiresome. While I kept wishing that Damon were in another film, I didn’t want Dowd to be in any film at all.

Marvin Hamlisch’s score, mimicking the soundtracks of all those tedious 1950s short subjects (“Hi, let us take you on a tour of Yellowstone Park”) and industrial films, is mindlessly cheery on purpose, for it’s meant to be the inner music of a man who thinks of himself as a hero: first, of a Horatio Alger success story; later, of a James Bond thriller; finally, as the innocent victim of all sorts of corporate forces. This is clever but would have worked even better if Whitacre had been portrayed as an outwardly normal man with a neurotic inner life (Damon’s blithering voiceover, which records Whitacre’s stream of consciousness, suggests that he suffers from attention deficit disorder, not the bipolarity that a psychiatrist finally diagnoses). But Soderbergh and Damon portray the man as outwardly crazy, too, so I kept wondering why the people in his life didn’t have him committed instead of trusting him with all sorts of secrets.

The net effect on this viewer was discomfiting—as Soderbergh intended it to be but not, perhaps, in the way he intended. I believe he wanted Whitacre’s corruption, stemming from an out-of-control fantasy life, to be seen as counterpart to the corruption within ADM, which grew out of sheer greed. Having lied to everyone (business associates, the Justice Department, wife and children) and about everything (birth, money, products, contracts, motivations), Whitacre finally seems a bigger monster than all the ADM executives put together. And so, while corporate corruption comes off relatively unscathed, Whitacre, as a latter day Jonsonian “humor”—fatuous self-deception writ large—gets a rousing satirical thumping.

A satire that mainly skewers an individual’s neurosis instead of financial malfeasance and social irresponsibility? Is that really what Soderbergh had in mind?

Published in the 2009-11-06 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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