Agribusiness: the funny side
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