Agribusi­ness: the funny side

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Filmreviews - DON­ALD CLARKE

WE KNOW how whis­tle-blower films are sup­posed to look. Shot in blues and greys, they in­volve a great deal of mut­ter­ing in un­der­ground car parks and no small amount of scurrying from threat­en­ing shad­ows. Michael Mann’s The In­sider is, per­haps, the key exhibit here.

The peren­ni­ally busy Steven Soderbergh, re­turn­ing af­ter the box-of­fice drub­bing of his dif­fi­cult Che films, has de­cided to im­pose a very dif­fer­ent style on his study of (please try and con­tain your ex­cite­ment) the ly­sine price-fix­ing con­spir­acy that thrilled Amer­i­can food whole­salers in the 1990s.

The ex­cla­ma­tion point in the ti­tle is not an ac­ci­dent. Util­is­ing a groovy ti­tle font and jaunty in­ci­den­tal mu­sic by the vet­eran Marvin Ham­lisch, Soderbergh has at­tempted to turn the story into a hip, hap­pen­ing 1960s farce. As is of­ten the case with this di­rec­tor, the re­sult is un­apolo­get­i­cally man­nered. But, jazzed up by a brave, crazy per­for­mance from Matt Da­mon, The In­for­mant! ac­tu­ally man­ages the tricky busi­ness of com­bin­ing an ef­fi­cient fact-de­liv­ery sys­tem with gen­uinely rau­cous com­edy. If you don’t ab­so­lutely hate it, you’ll prob­a­bly re­ally like it.

The film fo­cuses tightly on the odd ex­pe­ri­ences of one Mark Whi­tacre. Orig­i­nally a bio­chem­istry bof­fin, Whi­tacre rose to be­come a se­nior ex­ec­u­tive in the agribusi­ness con­glom­er­ate Archer Daniels Mid­land. Aware that the firm was in­volved in fix­ing the price of a con­stituent of corn oil named ly­sine, Whi­tacre con­tacted the FBI and of­fered to act as an in­for­mant.

As the in­ves­ti­ga­tion pro­gressed, how­ever, it be­came clear that Whi­tacre was him­self in­volved in fraud. In­ves­ti­ga­tion was pre­ceded by counter-in­ves­ti­ga­tion and, if the film is to be cred­ited, it be­came dif­fi­cult to tell vil­lains from he­roes.

Whi­tacre was se­verely bi-po­lar, and Da­mon’s in­ces­sant, stream-of-con­scious voiceover mixes in clues as to his con­fused mo­ti­va­tions with nu­mer­ous everyday ir­rel­e­van­cies. One minute he is pon­der­ing the best way of tap­ing his con­tact, the next he is con­sid­er­ing where to buy his ties.

Some­times the dis­tanc­ing ef­fect is too great and the sub­stance of the story gets lost among the swingin’ cin­e­matic para­pher­na­lia. For the most part, how­ever, Soderbergh’s gam­ble pays off. If noth­ing else, it’s the most en­ter­tain­ing film ever made about agribusi­ness fraud.

Con­spir­acy the­o­rist: Matt Da­mon

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