Friday, September 11, 2009

"The Informant!"

I see a couple of problems with speaking critically about movies that are “based on a true story”. The first problem is knowing where fact ends and fiction begins; exactly how much of the story has been altered to make it more suitable for the screen? The other problem is that the characters represent real people; people who actually exist in real life, and lived through some version of these events. To that end, let me get this out of the way now; when I refer to characters in this film I am referring to the fictionalized version of the on the screen and not the real person.

“The Informant!” is a movie partly about the lysine price fixing scandals that Archer Daniels Midland found themselves in the center of back in the 90's, but mostly it's about one of the key figures in that scandal, Mark Whitacre. The film is based on the book “The Informant” (no exclamation point) by journalist Kurt Eichenwald, and is directed by Steven Soderbergh (“Oceans Eleven”, “Erin Brockovich”).

Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon: “The Bourne Identity”) is a lot of things. He a biochemist, a PhD, a vice president at Archer Daniels Midland, a husband, and a father. He's also an idiot, a liar, and possibly mentally ill. His internal dialog frequently overruns important things that people are telling him, and ranges from such interesting topics as designer ties to Japanese vending machines to the German word for “pen”. I suppose he is meant to come off as lovable in spite of his actions, but he mostly comes across as too stupid to live.

When confronted with problems in his lysine production division, Whitacre goes to his superiors with a story about a saboteur and an extortion attempt by a Japanese competitor. The FBI becomes involved, and, at the urging of his wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey: “Two and a Half Men”), he tells FBI Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula: “Quantum Leap”) about a price fixing scheme between ADM and other lysine manufacturers around the world.

Agent Shepard and Agent Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) convince Whitacre to turn informant for the government and help them build a case against ADM. Unfortunately Whitacre is incapable of keeping it a secret, telling various people, including his secretary and gardener, about his involvement with the FBI.

“The Informant!” is an interesting, quirky, and unique film, but not a good one. It seems like Soderbergh was trying to recapture the dark dry humour of the “Ocean's” series , but ultimately ends up creating the mentally disadvantaged younger brother of movies like “The Insider”. You get neither an adventurous comedy, nor a corporate espionage thriller, you just get awkward humour as his bigger lies to cover his earlier lies snowball out of control.

For me, the part of the movie that I found the most fun was trying to spot all the cameos in it. Tom Wilson (“Back to the Future”), Tom and Dick Smothers, Clancy Brown (“Carnivale”), Patton Oswalt (“The King of Queens”), and Tony Hale (“Arrested Development”) all make appearances in this film, but they are not enough to save it from mediocrity.

With all the movies that are out and that are coming out, you can do better with your movie-going dollars that this. “The Informant!” is quirky, occasionally clever, and well cast, but it never lives up to its potential. Unless you make it a point to see anything starring Matt Damon, are really interested in the price fixing of lysine, or just like seeing bad movies, skip this; it is a rental at best.

“The Informant!” hits theaters nationwide on September 18th, but really, go see “Julie and Julia” again instead, or stay home and read a book, or go feed the pigeons in the park. Any of those things would be a better use of your time.

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