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Review

Corporate crime film pays off

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September 24, 2009

Americans have undergone a paradigm shift.

Whether willingly or not, we no longer look at big city sky-rises with starry-eyed wonder, relishing in the fact that US big business is providing a utopian breeding ground of economic prosperity and power.

Instead we see cesspools of corporate greed, money laundering and multi-million dollar white collar theft. So what do we do as a jaded American populace whose schema has replaced corporate with cartel? We make a comedy about it…

Matt Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a four-eyed biochem grad from Cornell, and an up-and-coming VP at Illinois-based agribusiness firm Archer Daniels Midland.

But Mark is also the highest ranking exec to ever have blown the whistle on an international corporate fraud case. In between hocking the corn byproduct Lysine and hustling food additives to his children at dinner, Mark becomes implicated in his company’s global price-fixing scam.

Reluctantly (at first) agreeing to help the FBI, Mark quickly enters into his own game of fraud, attempting to pawn ADM and the FBI around his own self-delusional chessboard as he bumblingly embezzles $11 million.

He sees himself the next James Bond, even calling himself 0014 – he claims to be twice as smart as 007.

Director Steven Soderbergh expertly whittles down a 3-year quagmire into a concise 100 minutes, cutting down to exposing Whitacre’s double-dealing far quicker than the feds did.

But “The Informant!” is not content with being simply another biopic. Soderbergh creates a film that is simultaneously true to the actual events it was inspired by, but also a carefully constructed cognitive experiment.

The narrative is purposely sprinkled with a seemingly random string of stream-of-consciousness voice overs from Whitacre, both providing a rare window into his mind and exposing that his mind has long since checked out.

“I’m the good guy in all of this,” Whitacre repeatedly tells Agents Shepherd (Scott Bakula) and Herndon (Joel McHale). The joke is that Whitacre actually believes it, twisting such a convoluted tangle of lies, not only to himself but everyone around him, he nearly chokes himself. Even ignorant housewife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) falls prey, choosing to turn a blind-eye towards her husband’s deception and desperation.

Damon’s performance is nothing short of deranged, and I mean that in the best way possible. Between the mild midwestern accent, the upper-lip hair and rug, and the 30-pounds-heavier beer gut, you’ll forget you’re watching a blimped-up Bourne, and really believe in the performance.

Damon presents a real human on screen, not a stylized Hollywood interpretation. Both he and Soderbergh play this one pretty close to the chest, never attempting to overshadow the deadly serious subject matter with laugh-out-loud lunacy.

You’ll laugh at “The Informant!” to be sure, but it’s the kind of laughter that serves only to stifle tears. The jokes aren’t the kind suited for water cooler retelling, but serve as stinging reminders of the post-Enron world we now live in.

Perhaps the cruelest irony of the film – and it’s the joke that has me laughing the hardest – is that not only did Whitacre serve a sentence three times longer than the criminal execs he exposed, but less than three years after his release for corporate embezzlement and fraud, he became the COO and President of an international corporation. I guess crime in America does pay…

Ken Weigend is an alumnus of UW-River Falls. He was editor of the Student Voice during spring semester 2010.