MOVIE: The Informant! (2009)

You know what’s weird about this movie?  It’s billed as a comedy — I mean, look at the cover art for the DVD (stage left), right? — and yet, it’s absolutely one of the most tragic films I’ve ever seen.  I didn’t know it when it began, and I laughed more than once.  But as the story unfolded, I was absolutely crushed by self-loathing over that. Oh man, this is so not funny!  It’s NOT FUNNY, I’m sorry!

Based on the non-fiction book by Kurt Eichenwald, this movie tells the true story of a whistle-blower named Mark Whitacre (played by ex-Boyfriend Matt Damon) who worked for Archer Daniels Midland in the 1980’s.  When he discovers a price-fixing scheme in the company related to the cost of lysine, an additive widely used in the livestock industry, he reports it to the FBI, quickly and almost unwittingly becoming sucked in as the major player in their resultant quest to bring ADM down.

Over the next several years, Whitacre helps the FBI amass thousands of hours of video and audio recordings that trace the scheme all the way up to the top executives.  Eventually, they are all arrested and taken to court, and several ended up serving jail time (though, naturally, this became just a minor blip for the huge, still-going ADM).

The “comedy” parts of the film come mostly from watching Whitacre bumble around a lot, as he dictates things loudly and obviously right into his wire and accidentally nearly-exposes the whole plan more than once.  At first, we just think he’s kind of a dolt — or maybe a bit of a loose cannon.  But it’s not long before it becomes obvious that he’s fairly severely mentally ill.  I guessed bipolar about halfway through the film, and it turns out I was right about that — it just fit with everything he was doing, including committing his own major, major crime without really thinking about it (fraudulently stealing over $9 million from the company over a span of several years), and not being able NOT to tell on himself later on.  That he then kept digging himself deeper and deeper into the hole simply failed to strike me as amusing, I’m afraid.

I mean, here’s a guy who can neither lie nor not lie, and whose mental illness drives him to extremes that eventually destroy his career and his marriage, finally landing him in prison with a sentence three times bigger than the ones given to the ADM executives who started this whole thing rolling.  Why is that funny?  Can someone explain it to me?

The movie is very well made, of course — good acting, good writing, and an undeniably fascinating story.  But I have to confess, most of that was kind of lost on me in the end.  The “comedy” in this comedy is simply so painfully unintentional and so obviously leading to a terrible end that it’s more heartbreaking than hilarious.  Call me a stiff if you’d like.  It’s a moniker I’ll wear with pride over this one.

[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Not Comedy. NOT!
Cast:  Matt Damon, Melanie Lynskey, Scott Bakula, Patton Oswalt, Thomas F. Wilson, Joel McHale

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4 Responses to “MOVIE: The Informant! (2009)”

  1. Liz Says:

    I think I would have reacted the same way to this movie: “explain to me why bipolar disorder and going to jail are funny.” What a shame – I, too, thought this was supposed to be a funny movie – and Matt Damon can be very funny when he wants to be.

    It took me a little while to figure out why your reaction confused me. It’s because it’s the same one I had when I tried to watch “Monk.” My thought was: “I don’t see the humour in this OCD stuff.” Maybe the difference was that the material was handled in a more sensitive way. I understand that Tony Shalhoub’s performance was very well done, but Matt Damon should have done a good job too.

    Maybe, once again, the “packaging” and advertising for the movie was all wrong, and led you to have different expectations. We all know how easily that can happen, and the “wrong” expectation can certainly lead to disappointment.

  2. megwood Says:

    I had the same issue with Monk at times, but, like you said, it was often handled with a lot of sensitivity. Less so in the first season, but they did a better job with it later on.

  3. Trip Says:

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I can only remember one small scene in this movie where mental illness is touched upon – when Whitacre is at the therapist and he mentions that “they said that about my aunt” when asked about any family history of manic-depressiveness and the like.

    The movie then gives a blurb at the end about what eventually became of him…so was it really mental illness or opportunistic greed driving his actions?

    Anyway, to me the comedy aspects here are similar to the black, cringey, WTF style of humor like you see in the UK version of “The Office”. Depends on what your humor cup of tea is, I guess.

    Much of it comes at the expense of the professional people who have to deal with Whitacre – particularly the scenes with Whitacre’s Chicago lawyers (their looks of dawning horror were admittedly fun to watch though), Patton Oswalt and his team, and worst of all, poor Scott Bakula…

  4. megwood Says:

    No, at some point in the movie, he’s actually revealed to be bipolar (which he is in real life as well) — I don’t remember when, but I remember thinking, “Aha.” It didn’t seem at all like opportunistic greed to me — if that had been all it was, he would’ve gotten away with it. It was almost like he just couldn’t help himself. And then he couldn’t NOT give himself up, and then couldn’t stop making it worse, like it was completely out of his control — that was the part that struck me as particularly sad.

    I love black comedies. I’m a huge fan of British sitcoms, for example, because they can be so dark and snarky. This didn’t qualify at all on that level for me.

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