x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Divested interest

Strong performances in The Informant! can't quite carry the lightweight adaptation of a serious subject.

In The Informant!, Matt Damon stars as Mark Whitacre, a businessman who offered to help expose a price-fixing conspiracy in the 1990s.
In The Informant!, Matt Damon stars as Mark Whitacre, a businessman who offered to help expose a price-fixing conspiracy in the 1990s.

The FBI wasn't really sure what they'd got on their hands when the rising corporate star Mark Whitacre offered to expose a massive worldwide price-fixing conspiracy at his company. And the trouble with The Informant!, the movie about the case, is that the director Steven Soderbergh seems equally unsure of what he had when the time came to film it.

His confusion is not surprising. What seems initially to be a simple case of corporate greed in the early 1990s is muddied when (spoiler alert) Whitacre is revealed to have embezzled millions of dollars of company funds and, at times, to have a delusional grasp of reality. The serious issue at the heart of this story is that Whitacre ended up getting a 10-year jail term for his frauds, more than three times as long as the Archer Daniels Midland corporate executives whose actions cost consumers hundreds of millions of dollars in artificially inflated prices. Whitacre's actions also prompted such concern by law enforcement agencies that the final result was to deter future whistle-blowers.

A book on Whitacre's case by The New York Times investigative journalist Kurt Eichenwald formed the basis of this movie. It, as well as a 1997 movie featuring Timothy Dalton, is also called The Informant, and the presence of the exclamation mark in Soderbergh's film is indicative. The much-lauded director behind Traffic and the Oceans 11 trilogy could easily have made a movie similar to The Insider, the serious and slightly turgid 1999 film saved by Russell Crowe's breakthrough performance as the corporate cigarette-industry whistleblower.

Instead, Soderbergh focuses on Whitacre's personal journey and his increasingly tenuous grasp on reality through years of covert wiretapping, investigation and, finally, imprisonment after he is stripped of his immunity. All this is portrayed in Soderbergh's typically stylish way, drawing deeply on the themes that worked so well in the Oceans 11 trilogy. The trouble is that the subject matter doesn't really lend itself to a lightweight rat-pack crime caper.

Damon does his best to salvage the film with an endearingly manic performance as Whitacre, a role for which he gained 15kg and, well, dorkified himself. A series of strong performances by the supporting cast, including Scott Bakula and Joel McHale as increasingly exasperated FBI agents and Melanie Lynskey as Whitacre's long-suffering wife, also help, but manage only to stop this movie from being a total disaster.

The film contains characteristics of a movie that has been adapted from a book, including seemingly obscure plot fragments that one strongly suspects relate to a subtheme of Eichenwald's book that has been glossed over in the big-screen adaptation. The Informant! has drawn polarising reactions from its audiences, prompting lavish praise or disappointment but hardly any middling opinions. At the box office in the US, it was beaten in its opening week by Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.

As for the real-life Whitacre, after being released from jail after serving more than eight years, he re-entered the corporate world and rose to become the chief operating officer of Cypress Systems, a California-based biotech company.