Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), President of the BioProducts division at Archer Daniels Midland, seems an honest man. “Corn is in everything,” we’re told, brought up to speed as a NAGRA recording deck is loaded and wound. In the early 1990′s, the semi-fictional film purports, industry giants were cornering the high fructose corn syrup market—according to Whitacre, anyway. He is tasked with improving the output of high-lysine corn syrup, a seven million dollar per month business for ADM. A high-profile business segment, his superior notes, “We’re number 44 on the Fortune 500 list. I don’t want us to dip to 45.”
Since the mid-1980′s, debate continues over this genetically-modified livestock feed being introduced as a substitute for high protein foods in third world countries, but that controversy is abruptly abandoned for the narrower story of Whitacre blowing the whistle on corporate malfeasance. The FBI is suspicious why Whitacre, on the payroll for $350,000 per year, would drop the bomb on his own employer—not the typical whistleblower’s modus operandi.
There’s the hook for this Mamet-like film which jogs the brain cells as you follow dialogues askance action, Whitacre’s tangential voice-overs constantly distracting you from deciphering the actual plot. Is he a whistleblower, a corporate crook, or just a bipolar sociopath who likes to screw with people? The clues aren’t in what he’s talking about, but how. He appears harebrained, but only a calculated man who dissects every thought before he thinks it, let alone speaks, would posit of the metric system and the ubiquitous two-litre soda, “The little bottle is the only thing that ever caught on because it’s a nicer sounding word than ‘QUART…. quart… quart…’”
Beleaguered FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard’s (Scott Bakula) entire case rests on the credibility of Whitacre, his sole witness. So skeptical becomes Shepard, he and his partner, Bob Herndon (Joel McHale), demand harder evidence and a polygraph—passable, if you’re a sociopath. Doubt shrouds even his wife’s involvement (Melanie Lynskey playing the unwitting accomplice); “Regina” is a town in Saskatchewan. I’ve been there. It’s sketchy.
The FBI agents remain two steps behind Whitacre, who leaves a trail of seemingly-orchestrated mis-steps which threaten to eviscerate their case for collusion between industry executives. Whitacre becomes the inscrutable antihero. Whether he’s sticking it to the FBI, to ADM, or to everybody, his pathos wins our curiosity if not our support. “I’m the only one qualified to run the company,” he concludes in deluded affirmation.
It’s challenging to discuss the film further without spoiling delicious plot elements. Whitacre’s own dubious practices, which he maintains were standard at ADM, catch up with him to the tune of seven, or is it nine, or eleven million dollars. Have fun keeping track; even his attorneys are baffled, and the FBI agents nearly sunk by his loose lips. The spectacular fraud is hilariously compared to a Nigerian 419 advance fee scam.
The film bristles with genius. Visual and narrative punchlines strike flawlessly like the absurdist humor of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, effortlessly and not in the ponderous, stilted manner of any number of Gen-Y hipster indie comedies as of late. The humor is concentrated in bluntly honest, yet entirely tangential observations by Whitacre played against nonchalant scene compositions. Consider juxtaposing Mr. McHale as the straight man FBI partner against Mr. Bakula’s infernally-wooden acting and Whitacre’s out-to-lunch personality. A lesser director would have cast Mr. McHale in a deliberately comic role.
Mr. Damon’s performance is the coup de grâce—vacillating between abject naïvete and Machiavellian plotting. So dubious is his portrayal that his clenching of a New Coke can—the ultimate icon of corporate failure—may be irony (high fructose corn syrup being a key ingredient) as well as mockery (brand placement in a film about corporate chicanery). Mr. Damon may just have broken the fourth wall, reached out into the theater and given us whiplash yanking our chains.
The Informant! • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • Running Time: 108 Minutes • MPAA Rating: R for language. • Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures