Like presidential campaigners hopscotching from New York to California in the last week before the election, some movie stars and directors spend their days presenting their films at the big movie showcases first in Venice, then a few days later here at the Toronto International Film Festival. The idea is to sell their new works to the European and North American markets, and maybe get a whisper of Oscar buzz. Among this year's frequent flyers are Werner Herzog, in Venice with his Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans stars Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes, and Michael Moore, who brought along his Capitalism: A Love Story star, Michael Moore. George Clooney is a familiar figure at both festivals, and in Venice this year he shared red-carpet photo ops with his Ocean's Eleven (and Twelve and Thirteen) buddy, Matt Damon.
Tonight the Ocean's amigos are in different parts of Toronto: Clooney with The Men Who Stare at Goats at the Ryerson, Damon with The Informant! in a Gala showing at Roy Thomson Hall. Both pictures are kind-of thrillers and sort-of comedies that are more or less based on semi-non-fiction books about spy-case events that, in some form or other, may have occurred. (We'll get to Goats later this weekend, in tandem with a second Clooney film, Up in the Air.) Clooney always puts on a suave show, but tonight at TIFF, Damon has the posher venue and the better movie.
In the early '90s, Mark Whitacre (Damon) is president of the bio-chemicals division of the agro-giant Archer Daniels Midland. When the FBI launches an investigation into possible corporate espionage at ADM, Whitacre volunteers the information that his bosses are colluding with other companies in fixing the price of the amino-acid lysine, used to make the polyunsaturated corn oil in so many food-related products. "Basically, everyone is a victim of corporate crime before they finish breakfast," Whitacre tells an FBI agent (Scott Bakula), who says, "That's not a business meeting, that's a crime scene." Whitacre would become the highest-ranking businessman ever to blow the whistle on his own company, and ADM would pay $500 million in penalties.
Didn't they do this story a decade ago and call it The Insider? Yes, but director Steven Soderbergh wanted The Informant! to go somewhere else down the rabbit hole of Whitacre's mystifying mind. He seems the sunniest symbol of corporate America and middle America: smart, pleasant, undemonstrative, with a supportive wife (Melanie Lynskey) and two kids. But we get the earliest glimpses of Mark's gift for fooling people, and perhaps himself, in the movie's voiceover, in which Mark wanders blithely into logical cul-de-sacs and exotic trivia: In Japan, he notes, there are vending machine where men buy the used undergarments of schoolgirls. What does that say about the Japanese? Or about Mark, for fixating on it?
The whole movie is Mark's brain scan. It's shot and acted in a bland style that, you only eventually realize, is deeply askew, and darkly, corrosively satirical. The measured voices and pastel palette every location, whether an ADM office, a local restaurant or Whitacre's home, has the impersonal cheeriness of motel-room décor are reminiscent of some '70s game show produced by Chuck Barris, complete with a perky score by Marvin Hamlisch. Then Whitacre's story vortexes into deeper chicanery, and possible derangement; and The Informant! reveals itself as a cousin to Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the movie (directed by Clooney) that posited Barris as an assassin in the employ of the CIA. The key to The Informant!'s subversive agenda is in that exclamation point: it points you to responding by saying, "Ha!" or Huh?"
"Huh?," as in: What game, exactly, is Whitacre playing? Whose side is he on? How much of what he, or the film, says is true? Those questions, and the complexity of what may pass an answers, juice up the entertainment value of The Informant! The movie begins with a printed statement that, while much of the action is fact-based, certain characters and situations have been massaged for dramatic effect. This warning ends with a cheeky "So there," as if the filmmakers are sticking their tongue out at the gullibility of the ADM execs, the FBI agents, possibly Whitacre and, for sure, the audience.
The film was written by Scott Z. Burns, whose two most prominent credits as a producer of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and one of the scripters on Damon's hit thriller The Bourne Ultimatum hint at The Informant!'s mix of crusader fact and secret-agent fiction, though neither of those films has this one's devious agenda. In the movie business, Soderbergh is himself something of a double agent. Over the past decade, five of the features he's directed the three Ocean's films, Traffic and Erin Brockovich have grossed more than $100 million domestic, while seven others, including The Good German (with Clooney) and Che, have earned less than $5 million. His movies are either super-Hollywood or defiantly, sometimes suicidally, anti-Hollywood.
On the box-office chart, The Informant! may end up closer to the non-starters. Its lunacy is too deadpan, and its denouement too drawn out, to appeal to those who liked the Bourne movies, or, for that matter, the Gore. But it's worth seeing, and a salutary achievement. Hollywood is an industry that mostly ignores workplace life and the impact of corporations on what we eat and how we live. And on the rare occasions when it touches on these issues, it looks to turn them into morality plays with easily recognizable heroes and villains (as Erin Brockovich did). The Informant! says that people who do good or ill have complex motives for their actions, and that not everyone is knowable, instantly or ever. If we leave the movie wondering who its Mark Whitacre is, that will be the right response: not a "Huh?" but a muted "Aha."