The Informant! (review)

Funny Business

Ah, I finally figured out why I’d had it in my head — after seeing trailers and TV ads — that The Informant! was a Coen Brothers movie. Now that I’ve actually seen the movie, danged if the flick don’t feel like the Coens, if it ain’t redolent with the wonderfully odd tang of farce and feeling that they invariably bring to, at least, their lighter films.

It’s a tang that is not only wonderfully odd but, I’d have thought, inimitable. Not that I think Steven Soderbergh is intentionally aping the Coens: I’m just absolutely thrilled that another contemporary American filmmaker is able to do what the Coens do: master tonal shifts without seeming like they’ve lost control of a movie or — worse — without seeming like they don’t know what the hell they want to say in the first place.
Like the Coens’ Burn After Reading, The Informant! is a potent satire on corporate malfeasance and a deliciously twisted — half biting, half poignant — portrait of the people do who corporate evil, with the added piquance of it being based on the true story of the highest-ranking corporate whistleblower in American history. (Scott Z. Burns wrote the screenplay based on Kurt Eichenwald’s book The Informant: A True Story [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.].) Matt Damon’s (Che, The Bourne Ultimatum) Mark Whitacre is a riddle of a man, a biochemist moved to management at Archer Daniels Midland — someday, I hope to see High Fructose Corn Syrup: A Horror Story, starring ADM as the hockey-masked slasher — who, as the film opens, is negotiating, from the victim’s side, an instance of corporate blackmail. One of ADM’s new projects — involving lysine as an additive, which sounds like the makings of HFCS II: The Nightmare Continues — is being sabotaged, it seems, by a competitor, and the blackmailer is demanding millions from ADM via Whitacre. So the FBI gets involved, in the persons of Agents Shepard (Scott Bakula: Life as a House, Luminarias) and Herndon (Joel McHale: Lords of Dogtown, Spider-Man 2).

And then, as the FBI is in the process of ramping up an investigation into the blackmail, Whitacre mysteriously pulls Shepard aside and tells him about something even bigger: a price-fixing scheme between ADM and their competitors that makes the blackmail look like jaywalking.

Whitacre is a queer duck: the running commentary in his head, a strange mashup of non sequitur trivia and reflections on brand-name products, produces a nonsense stream-of-consciousness narration for the early portions of the story that meshes beautifully with the deliberately off-kilter look to the film. (Later, after we’ve learned more about Whitacre and why he behaves as he does, his narration takes on a different layer of peculiarity.) Though it’s set in the early to mid 1990s, the colors and the clothes and the haircuts and the overall look of this world reeks of kitschy 80s (production designer Doug Meerdink deserves a special shoutout), and the snappy Marvin Hamlisch score harkens back even further, to the 50s or 60s, like maybe it was recovered from an unproduced stage musical called How to Succeed in Business by Lying, Cheating and Being a General Bastard. It all keeps you so off-balance, in the right way a movie should, that by the time you realize that perhaps the situation isn’t exactly what you think it is, it’s something even more wickedly weird and funny and depressing and piercing than you ever could have expected.

The thing about McHale as Herndon (who brings a zingy energy to the role): You might spend moments early on thinking, “Gee, I know that guy from somewhere.” Later, you may recall that he’s a standup comic you’ve probably seen on TV here and there, because suddenly you’ll notice that many of the FBI agents and representatives of the federal government are played by comics, not the celebrity types but ones that register almost subconsciously as “people I know as funny, even though they’re in dramatic roles here,” such as Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tomkins, and Melanie Lynskey (who isn’t a comic but is best known in the U.S. from the sitcom Two and a Half Men) as Whitacre’s wife.

Something both funny-weird and funny-ha-ha is lurking under everything going on? Sounds like corporate America today to me.

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