Funny Farm

Steven Soderbergh, The Informant!, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 108 minutes. Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon).

STEVEN SODERBERGH’S THE INFORMANT! has a golden glow, as if it had been dipped in high-fructose corn syrup. The look of the movie, as well as other exaggeratedly cheery, cornball touches, most notably Marvin Hamlisch’s jaunty Broadway orchestrated score, are Soderbergh’s cinematic translations of a very creepy description that occurs on the opening page of Kurt Eichenwald’s investigative nonfiction book of almost the same name (no exclamation point in the title of the original 2000 edition) about the 1990s multinational price-fixing scandal involving agri-industry giant Archer Daniels Midland. Of Decatur, Illinois, where ADM’s headquarters and many of its processing plants were (and still are) located, Eichenwald writes: “Newcomers to town usually found the smell disagreeable. But for Decatur residents, the ever-present odor produced by drying corn feed and toasting soymeal at the powerful Archer Daniels Midland Company had become part of the landscape, no different than the trees or the sky. Locals often joked it was the smell of money being made.”

Based on his own New York Times investigative series, Eichenwald’s The Informant is a great read. While not as epic as Enron, the ADM corruption case resulted in jail time for three of its executives. The government also collected more than one billion dollars in fines from various companies around the world implicated in the price-fixing scheme. The combination of outrageous corporate chicanery with the production of foodstuffs whose supposed wholesomeness defines the American way—and, as many now believe, the way to obesity and the abuses of factory farming—makes for some laugh-out-loud moments in a fast-moving though complicated business thriller. But what gives the book its truth-is-more-preposterous-than-fiction twist is its central character, Mark Whitacre, the most highly placed whistle-blower in US history. Whitacre was a rising star at ADM when he alerted the FBI to the conspiracy. He wore a wire for two and a half years, all the while engaging in kickback schemes perhaps more profitable than those he accused his bosses of perpetrating. The dream witness turned into a nightmare for the FBI—and a mind-boggling example of self-interest rationalized as utopian vision.

“Comedy is hard; dying is easy” is a showbiz axiom. But when all the elements of a comedy are in sync and the director imposes a lean and mean discipline, the result has the élan of spur-of-the-moment inspiration. The Informant! is an inspired social satire, a near-perfect single-carat diamond in an age of mindless movie bling. It’s a small movie, but not in any sense minor. Soderbergh’s choice is to focus on Whitacre (Matt Damon) and keep the ADM company as fast-sketch background. Thus you might not grasp, after watching the adaptation that Soderbergh cooked up with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, that ADM, because of the generous contributions of its leader Dwayne Andreas to both Republican and Democratic administrations, was a very well-connected company, nor might you even consider the degree to which that sense of being connected led the price-fixers to feel invulnerable. The one thing that is salient is that Whitacre, in order to protect himself, told a big whopper, which caused one of his bosses to call in the FBI to investigate a supposed Japanese mole inside ADM’s valuable lysine-development division, which caused Whitacre, whose baby was lysine production, to blow the whistle on the price-fixing scheme in which he was a key operative, in order to keep the feds from finding out about his other swindles. The underlying paradox of the ADM case is that if Whitacre hadn’t been a crook and a pathological liar, he never would have informed, and the price-fixing might have gone on to this day.

Damon plays Whitacre as a satiric version of the profoundly disassociated personality that is nearly his stock-in-trade: Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Colin Sullivan in The Departed (2006), Jason Bourne in the “Bourne” series (2002–2007). Burns, who also cowrote The Bourne Ultimatum, hangs the narrative on Whitacre’s stream-of-conscious voice-over, making the character among the most unreliable narrators in movie history. Like many such characters, he suffers from paranoid delusions of grandeur, severe boundary issues, and an inability to acknowledge the existence of others except insofar as they are instrumental to his own needs. Beneath his unflagging Eagle Scout demeanor; short-legged, determined gait; earnest, bespectacled gaze; and a Robert Redford mop of hair that turns out to be, who would think it, a toupee, is a psyche that free-associates with abandon, so that he can avoid even a semblance of self-awareness or moral responsibility. Poisonous butterflies, girls’ underwear sold in kiosks on Tokyo streets, how to smuggle ties bought in Paris through customs, aspirations to 007’s daring-do—or to Tom Cruise’s arm-twisting in The Firm (1993)—they pour out of him onto the audio track accompanied by music that sounds like the omnipresent TV-commercial jingle you fear will still be playing in your head when you’re on your deathbed. It’s a brilliant performance and a true star turn, but it would not have been possible without Burns’s biting, hilarious text and the utterly mundane mise-en-scène that Soderbergh provides in order to set off Whitacre’s flamboyant pathology, as well as to suggest that the frauds Whitacre perpetrated are hardly unfamiliar. The ADM case was wrapped up by 1999, but the corporate arrogance, greed, and mendacity it revealed is everyday news. As one of The Informant!’s numerous characters opines: “Everyone in this country is a victim of corporate crime by the time they finish breakfast.”