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Information overload

The Informant!



The Informant! (R)

Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown

Officially, he was a "cooperating witness," but here is why the movie about Mark Whitacre is called The Informant!

In 1992, Whitacre, an executive at Archer Daniels Midland Co., the Illinois-based "supermarket to the world," had a responsibility to determine why ADM's production levels of a ubiquitous corn-derived food additive were dropping. And he had to do something about it.

Whitacre soon informed his bosses that the company had been sabotaged. Enter the FBI. Then Whitacre informed the FBI that his bosses were involved with price-fixing. Enter the attorneys. Then he informed the attorneys that his FBI contact had bribed, assaulted and instructed him to destroy evidence.

But some of Whitacre's information was not reliable. For instance, he neglected to inform ADM shareholders that he'd been embezzling millions of their dollars. Enter the journalists.

And that's not the whole story. The whole story required more than 600 pages in Kurt Eichenwald's bestselling book, The Informant. The movie didn't have room for the whole story, so it left some things out, but put in others, like a fattened Matt Damon as Whitacre and an exclamation point. It was directed by Steven Soderbergh, and is nothing if not conspicuously punctuated.

Who knew a conspiracy for world domination would consist of a bunch of puffy execs crowded into a hotel room nonchalantly drawing pie charts with Magic Markers? Thanks to Mark Whitacre, there is actual video of this. And it seems inherently cinematic, at least until you realize that it also seems inherently boring.

So it's not a bad idea to play this story for laughs. Aren't we overdue for a great black comedy about white-collar crime? Unfortunately, The Informant! isn't it. There are a few reasons. For starters, making Matt Damon funny doesn't come naturally to screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who also wrote The Bourne Ultimatum. It helps that Burns cleverly positions Whitacre as an unreliable narrator by funneling a chunk of Eichenwald's reporting into Damon's manic voiceover narration. But if bipolar disorder really was the reason for Whitacre's mania, well, then that's less funny.

Here's another thing: This production's executive overseer is Participant Media, whose mission, "to entertain audiences first, then to invite them to participate in making a difference," has yielded such earnest, self-satisfied outings as An Inconvenient Truth, The Soloist and Food, Inc. It has not yielded many comedies.

With Soderbergh being both the Ocean's Eleven guy and the Erin Brockovich guy, it's easy to believe he might be up to the task. Fine, but remember that his recent movies also have included a dry biography of Che Guevara, a superficial and curiously sexless ditty about a hooker, and Ocean's Twelve and Thirteen.

Here, compensating for little happening within the story, Soderbergh tosses in familiar, unexpected faces, inviting us to make a sport of wondering who might appear next. He gathers put-upon reaction shots from FBI agents played by Scott Bakula and Joel McHale, plus a few from Melanie Lynskey as Whitacre's wife, and punches everything up with Marvin Hamlisch music cues. And he lets Damon have a good time. The result, to borrow a phrase used by a shrink to describe Mark Whitacre, is "circumlocutory and vague."

If the Whitacre of Eichenwald's book remains unknowable, it's not for lack of inquiry. On the page, his shifty motives became a page-turning mystery. On the screen, not so much. Maybe all we needed to know was that Whitacre had a unique way with information, and that's why he wasn't such a cooperative witness after all.

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