There's something fishy about Mark Whitacre. The up-and-coming executive (played by Matt Damon) sports a typical Midwestern corporate look for the early 1990s — bad haircut, mustache, bit of a paunch, clown tie, shapeless suit, etc. — but that's not what bothers us, and at first there's no reason to suspect that this scientist-turned-manager at Archer Daniels Midland, the huge agribusiness conglomerate, has a screw loose. But he does, and Steven Soderbergh's curiously punctuated The Informant! provides a smudged window into Mark Whitacre's inner world and also the world of a corporate food leviathan. They are worlds you'll want to escape from as quickly as possible.
While Archer Daniels Midland, aka ADM, goes about its business of genetically modifying the nation's food and fixing the price of lysine with its competitors, Mark is busy worrying there's a saboteur inside the company, tinkering with the lysine. Nervous, easily distracted Mark finds it hard to make small talk with the other execs at ADM because his mind is always racing off on tangents — which we hear in voiceover — about neckties, Michael Crichton novels, outlandish Japanese habits, and other trivia. In a risky move for a film based on a true story, Mark turns out to be an unreliable narrator.
By the time he contacts a mystified FBI agent (Scott Bakula) and agrees to wear a wire to help the feds investigate the wrongdoing he tells them is going on at ADM, we've developed serious doubts about Mark, the competence of the FBI, and the food business in general. Mark won't shut up, to anyone about anything, and he can't help comparing his predicament with ones he's seen in movies like The Firm ("Everything they did to me they did to Tom Cruise"). He makes things up. It's amusing up to a point. Damon portrays preoccupied bureaucrats (The Good Shepherd) and delusional misfits (The Talented Mr. Ripley) as well as anyone, and the supporting cast is fine, especially Thomas F. Wilson (remember Biff from Back to the Future?) as Mark's boss and Melanie Lynskey as Mark's thoroughly confused wife, whose pet name for him is "Corky."
Director Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (adapting Kurt Eichenwald's book) seem to be showing us the comic flip side of Michael Clayton. In that film, the evil food megacorp was scarier than God — intimidating hostile witnesses, dispatching assassins, spending millions in hush money — but in The Informant! everyone runs around in a daffy sitcom daze, cued to 1960s graphics and game-show-style music. Instead of a nail-biter like The Insider or the pathetic tale of a corporate hit-and-run victim, such as Flash of Genius, Mark's big-business shenanigans simply peter out anticlimactically over the course of six or seven years, and that's that. He's not a lone whistleblower, he's a solitary fruitcake.
The Informant! is not one of Participant Media's (formerly Participant Productions) finest hours, compared to Syriana, An Inconvenient Truth, or The Kite Runner. Nor is it much help in deciphering the career of Soderbergh, once a critical darling, now better known as the creator of politically intriguing concepts that fail to connect onscreen, à la The Good German or Che, or The Girlfriend Experience. But he and George Clooney will keep trying, no doubt.
Would Mark Whitacre's crazy crusade against "corruption" have made more sense as a documentary? Ask the makers of Fuel and No Impact Man, the latest in 2009's string of pro-Earth, pro-organic, anticorporate docs. Either one is more worthy of your time.
Joshua Tickell and Colin Beavan want us to believe they're two ordinary guys who, darn it, just got so fed up with America's wasteful ways they decided to make documentaries about their efforts to help save the planet. Well, why not? A couple more enviro documentaries couldn't hurt, and neither Tickell's Fuel nor No Impact Man, directed by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein and coproduced by author Beavan, is much of an affront to enviros or people who take film seriously.
Both docs are of the Michael Moore-Morgan Spurlock school — skillfully edited one-man shows that counterbalance nominally entertaining stunts with a lofty concept no one can argue against without appearing insane. In Fuel, the nut bite comes from none other than George W. Bush, who as president solemnly declares: "America is addicted to oil." No Impact Man carries that warning a bit further. Its concept: America has so many unnecessary, harmful habits that the best remedy is to tear the average consumer lifestyle down to its bare essentials in order to leave the smallest possible footprint on the battered landscape.
Fuel is the more watchable of the two, but No Impact Man lingers in the mind longer, despite Beavan's initially annoying antics. For one year beginning in November 2006, New York City author Beavan, along with his wife and toddler daughter, decided to radically alter their way of life by "taking themselves off the grid": canceling newspaper and magazine subscriptions; forgoing most transportation that was not self-powered; eating and drinking only fresh, unprocessed food and drinks from local farmers' markets; forsaking harmful cleaning products; throwing away their TV; composting whatever waste they produced; and eventually cutting off their Manhattan apartment's electricity entirely. Of course, before setting out on this experiment Beavan made a book deal, set up a blog, and arranged the production of this movie, in which he and his family get followed around by a film crew. He was a busy little pre-Industrial-Revolution beaver. To find a national news outlet that hadn't profiled him was difficult.
As with Spurlock and occasionally Moore, we grow weary of Beavan midway through the stunt. Because he's in NYC he's a media celeb; if he did it in Kansas he'd be labeled a survivalist weirdo. His wife, Michelle Conlin, is a better story — writer for Business Week, Starbucks junkie (remember, no caffeine or alcohol for a year), devotee of reality TV shows, etc. When the lightbulb finally switches on in her head, we know the family and the experiment are all going to work out just fine because she's the one it needs to really convince.
The well-produced, borderline-whimsical Fuel, starring Tickell's biofuel-powered Veggie Van, tells us things we already know about our overreliance on fossil fuels and the catastrophic effects. It also connects certain dots for us one more time, when one talking head explains what happened when the oil-soaked US national debt began to balloon out of control: You pick up a gun and go rob a service station. That's the War on Terror.
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