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‘The Informant!’

No sympathy for this little devil

by Kaori Shoji

Steven Soderbergh’s latest, “The Informant!,” comes off like the smartest, funniest kid in the class — a wiz at everything he does from physics to basketball, but somehow friendless.

His sin lies in being too clever for his own good and too self-satisfied to hide it. Kids like him would be better suited to living in a monarchical dictatorship, with him running the show top-down. If you don’t get his jokes, hurled with precise aim from the depths of a brain geared permanently at warp speed, then go live in a democracy where there’s a safety net for the slow and unsharp. Or so the film seems to say.

The title and opening credits are rife with smarmy wit; what’s with the exclamation mark anyway, the 1960s color scheme and squiggly font copped from the “Yellow Submarine” album jacket?

Soderbergh is deliberately misleading us since the story (based on a true-to-life corporate scandal) happens in the early 1990s — a not-so-auspicious decade that looking back seems intoxicated with its own, innocuous cluelessness. Certainly that seems to be the case with protagonist Mark Whitacre (played by a toupeed Matt Damon, who reportedly put on 15 kg for the role).

Mark is a successful biochemist working for agribusiness colossus Archer Daniels Midland — only 32 years old and he’s already building stables next to his huge home in Decatur, Illinois (close to the company headquarters), married to the antiseptic Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) and father of three kids, two of whom are adopted.

Soderbergh wastes no time getting the audience acquainted with Mark, which means engineering a huge urge within us to become unacquainted with the guy as soon as possible. Mark is set up here as the caricature of the deadly boring ’90s guy with his big-shouldered suits and bigger trench coats, his nondescript and beefy face inspiring business trust but not much more. It’s no wonder Ginger looks as if she’s stifling a yawn whenever he’s around, a mug of coffee clasped in her hand. One “hi honey!” uttered by her husband at a wrong moment could likely send her into a coma.

Maybe Mark knows this, because he’s always trying to make up for his dull-as-prairie-mud persona with dramatic lies. At first, it’s a relatively harmless fib (in his mind, at least): He tells his boss (Tom Papa) that an executive from a Japanese food company has placed a spy in Archer Midlands to screw up their hot, new food additive. The Japanese executive will back off for a price, and has picked Mark as the go-between. The lie snowballs into something bigger when the boss calls in the FBI to tap Mark’s home phone as a defense measure. To extricate himself from the tangle of concocted BS, Mark cuts a deal with the FBI and agrees to wear a wire for the purpose of nailing Archer-Midland’s (at the time, nonexistent) price-fixing conspiracy. There’s Mark, secretly setting up microphones in conference rooms from Honolulu to Hamburg, and there’s the infinitely patient FBI agent, Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula), holed up in a dark room somewhere in the building, listening in. Both are completely serious. Brian even carries around a photo of Mark and his family, just to “remind myself that this man has a family, has people who depend on him” and therefore, he, Brian, must protect his informant at all costs.

In the meantime, Mark is wondering inwardly whether to call Brian “Bri” — because, afterall, they have more than a business relationship, don’t they?

“The Informant!” is hilarious and fascinating, the laughs accelerated by the fact that Mark Whitacre is so excessively unlikable. He’s less human than crustacean, encased in an impenetrable shell concealing a colossal smugness and an infinite capacity for self-deceit under which bubbles a polluted wellspring of insecurity. You just don’t want to KNOW Mark, but it’s hard not to listen to him, if only to see how far he goes. To make sure no one ever sympathizes with the guy, Soderbergh delivers an inconclusive conclusion that goes off like a bad dinner joke told at some second-rate country club, somewhere in the U.S. Midwest.