'Informant' plays out poorly


POSTED: Friday, September 18, 2009

The country is full of midlevel managers like Mark Whitacre, guys who firmly believe they're the smartest in the room, the kind of personality that cannot help but pronounce weighty and insightful (or so they believe) philosophical pronouncements on every little thing, no matter how mundane, when all they're really doing is stoking their own egos. They usually get away with it, too.

Whitacre was a functionary at a manufacturing plant that produced fruit sugars, and it turned out the company was price-fixing with other fruit-sugar companies, so Whitacre blew the whistle on them. He believed he was smarter than the FBI and his own employer, and it turned out that he was a horrible informant, puffed up with his own visions, and guilty of other things as well. The government found the company guilty, and also went after Whitacre, who wound up serving a longer term than the corporate execs.

That's what happens when you try to play everyone simultaneously.





        Rated R

Opens today in theaters






“;THE INFORMANT!”; is somewhat of a true story, and Whitacre actually exists, and indeed served time for embezzlement. The company was Archer Danials Midland, and the case became the largest antitrust case in U.S. history. The FBI agents taken in by Whitacre think of him as a hero, nonetheless.

The audience is on the side of the FBI agents, as we see Whitacre gradually get weirder and more dissociative.

All this is ripe for a dark comedy, and you'd think that Steven Soderbergh's unique style of comedy—basically, men in suits freaking out in small rooms—would play well. But for some reason, it doesn't. “;The Informant!”; comes across as a bit too smug, and not a little desperate.

It's not a good sign when they add an exclamation mark on the title to liven things up. And it's not a good sign when the cast is larded with comedians playing serious bit parts—watch for Tom Smothers, Bob Zany and Patton Oswalt, among others. Also in the cast are Melanie Lynsky and Ann Cusack, a double dose of adorability pretty much wasted.

The movie succeeds primarily as a character study, and Matt Damon throws himself and his hair into the midst of it all. He's quite amazing—the Bourne tough guy has evaporated completely—and we're left with a chap who simply cannot look in the mirror and see what the rest of us do.

It's a funny, mad, brave performance in a movie that fails to support it.