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Published: Sunday, 9/20/2009

'The Informant!': Is it a comedy or is it a drama?

Matt Damon stars as FBI informant Mark Whitacre. Matt Damon stars as FBI informant Mark Whitacre.
JACQUES LE GOFF Enlarge

Examining Steven Soderbergh's oeuvre, you'll find a director with a disparate resume of films: the gritty think-piece Traffic, the drama-bio Erin Brockovich, the audience-pleasing Oceans Eleven franchise, the action-revenge movie The Limey, and even the sci-fi remake Solaris.

Soderbergh is a director who isn't fenced in by one genre. For his latest effort, the Oscar winner strays into Coen Brothers territory with The Informant! a quirky dark comedy about a corporate whistleblower with the bad habit of withholding the truth.

Soderbergh got the casting correct with the film, including Matt Damon in the lead role of executive-turned FBI informant Mark Whitacre. There's also the vague familiarity of the Coens' aesthetics to the movie. What Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum) missed is the punchy dialogue that makes Coen comedies like Fargo and Burn After Reading so much fun, dark as they may be.

Based on a book by Kurt Eichenwald - itself based on a true story - The Informant! is fascinating and offers great fodder for post-film discussion. But try recalling a single quote from the film and you just can't.

Take the amusing, often esoteric narratives by Damon's character throughout the film. His random observations seem clever enough, and occasionally what he says serves a higher plot purpose in explaining his motivations. It's just not that funny or entertaining.

It's certainly not for a lack of effort on the cast's part, including Damon, who packed on 30 pounds for the part and leaves the leading-man looks behind for a nifty character study. Mark Whitacre is a true original, an Archer Daniels Midland executive in the 1990s who tipped off the FBI to the company's and its competitors' price-fixing scheme of the food additive lysine.

Whitacre is smart and enjoys a well-paying job, a cushy life, and an adoring wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey, in a role with more depth than you would think). So what's his motivation in turning turncoat on his employer, the FBI agents (played by Scott Bakula and Joel McHale) wonder.

But his tales of corporate wrongdoing prove to be too enticing for the Feds to ignore, so they push on with their investigation and hijack Whitacre's life for two and a half years of clandestine meetings and secretly tape-recording executive meetings.

At first it's an espionage game for Whitacre, who claims he's simply doing the right thing. He envisions himself as a secret agent in the tradition of James Bond, only better. He also believes he's helping the corporation, and when the dust settles from the investigation, he'll be welcomed back to ADM as a hero.

But there are cracks in his good-guy suit of armor. Whitacre never reveals the entire truth to the government, his wife, and everyone else he drags into the investigation. And as the inquiry deepens, Whitacre begins to spin more tales and withhold more information, including the fact he's dipped into company coffers to the tune of millions - while working with the FBI. How does the FBI have a case against anyone at ADM if they can't trust their star witness?

And when we learn Whitacre's actions are the result of a bi-polar condition, the laughs are increasingly harder to come by.

The Informant! is a compelling story that never ceases to be fascinating. As a drama it might have worked; as a comedy it falls flat.



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