Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A White Collar Criminal Who Does Himself In

By Alec Horowitz

Four Stars

‘The Informant!’ is more than just a satire on white-collar crime. It’s also a reflection on the corporate culture of the 90s. Matt Demon plays Mark Whitacre, a corporate stiff who works for a company called ADM, one of those companies, which puts invisible corn products into much of the food in the supermarket. Though, this movie isn’t about the corporate engineering of food, though that does add a bit of a creepy element to it. As FBI Agent Brain Shepard (Scott Bakula) says, “Americans are already victims of corporate crime when they finish their breakfast.” The corporate crime though isn’t so much the corn products put into their breakfast foods as much as it’s the price fixing going on inside the company that manufactures the product invisible in the food Americans consume. What follows is a very well done funny drama about a bi polar white-collar criminal, who we find hard not to like even after some of his sins are brought out in the public.

We find out a lot of unpleasant things about Mark Whitacre, but for some reason, we can’t really seem to really dislike him. Maybe it’s because unlike many other criminals in films about corporate criminals, we see something of ourselves in this character. The screenplay by Scott Burns, based on the book by journalist Kurt Eichenwald, smartly plays out a running dialogue throughout the film of Witacre’s thoughts. Often they are simple and not related to the core plot, but this also draws out his character as the common man. At first, he seems to be another stiff consumed in the corporate culture of the 90s. One scene he is standing at a abandoned field with two walls sitting there, thinking to himself it make a good spot for a shopping outlet with even a food court. He also early on has a habit of comparing everything that happens to a Michael Crithon novel. When he finds that the Chinese are involved in the price fixing scheme, his first thought is this is just like the Michael Crithon novel, “Rising Sun.” Though, as the movie progresses, we start to get the sense that this inner running dialogue isn’t a normal organization of thoughts. There’s something off about the way he runs them off.

What make this film’s script and direction by Stephen Soderberg are a few elements. One of them is that the movie turns around in the middle. The film isn’t a covenantal white-collar criminal story and the film doesn’t treat this like one. There where times in this film I felt like I was watching a scene from “Fargo”, with that feel of an America surrounded by middle class housing and cheap luxury. There’s no dramatic music, instead choosing to use cheesy music that belongs out of a TV crime show. There’s a delicate balance going on in this film of comedy and drama. At one end the film is trying to make fun of the corporate culture and the people who get caught up in this. The film is in a way making fun of Mark Whitacre, but on the other hand, it isn’t. Though he find that Whitacre is less than innocent in the matters he also fought to expose, we also don’t dislike him. We understand him, and there were times I wanted to help him. Mark Whitacre isn’t our usual criminal. In a way, he’s trying too hard to get ahead. On the other hand, he’s a victim to his own tics and mental disorder.

He’s a decent guy but also a liar and a thieve. Maybe it’s because of the way Matt Demon plays him. He’s exaggerates him, with his big glasses and constant spear of the moment thoughts. Though, every time he does something stupid during the FBI investigation, it’s because he simply isn’t very smart. On the other hand, he can’t be dumb if what he pulled off is true, but than again he seems so confused by what he has done. His relationship with the two FBI agents Brain Shepard and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) seems genuine to a point. One of the reasons he seems to be doing this is because his wife told him it was the right thing to do. On the other hand, he’s told so many lies, who knows what his true motive is. Whitaker is a serial liar and thieve but also had the good will enough to come to the FBI and try to help them bust up a illegal plot. Though, also he’s trying to clear the board of the company so he will be celebrated for doing the right thing and getting upper hand in management. It’s stupid but it’s also understandable to watch someone try to accomplish this.

“The Informant!” is a very good, funny and at time, emotional corporate thriller. Though, it conveys emotions in a comical and low key way. Mark Whitacre is one of the more interesting whistle blower; with secrets of his own and problems he is trying his best to face up to. A important element of the film is that Mark isn't just a liar and a cheat, but he is for understandable reasons and we like him because of it. He has a undigonosied mental illiness. He is a victim of a coporate culture that has engulfed his life. He's also at times just not very smart. He's not a villian. He's just a guy trying to make it in the world, do the right thing and at the same time, well, make it in the world. He's well, a real person and this is said in one of those small sceens that often make a film. In one scene, when the other FBI agents are asking them what his motive would be, FBI Agent Bob Herndon talks out a picture of Mark Whitacre and his family and scolds his follow agents for thinking like that. “We carry this everywhere we go,” he says, “to remember he’s a real person”.