Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Melanie Lynskey
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“Polar bears cover their noses before they pounce on a seal. How do they know their noses are black?” Meet Mark Whitacre (Damon), biochemist, businessman and FBI snitch. He works for ADM, an agricultural giant who produce corn byproducts. Yes, corn. Mark’s life is surrounded by it. As he drives home past corn fields, he teaches his son all about the yellow stuff. While they travel, the camera flips the car upside down. The world stays like that for the rest of the film.
A topsy-turvy take on the true tale of Whitacre’s whistleblower, Steven Soderbergh’s comedy is a bizarre subversion of the corporate thriller. Namedropping Michael Chricton and referring to The Firm, it’s all incredibly self-aware and wacky. For the most part, it works really well. When Whitacre invents an imposter from Japan who’s poisoning their lysine production, the FBI are called in and decide to tap his phone. Then, Whitacre reveals to agent Brian Shepherd (Bakula) that the whole company is involved in a price-fixing scam. Cue wires, tapes and undercover espionage.
Throwing himself into the role of super-spy, Whitacre runs around, bugged briefcase in tow, narrating his actions for all to hear (“Hello Janet, secretary!”). Dubbing himself 0014 (because he’s twice as smart as 007), he brags about his secret work to the builders renovating the house. A babbling liar, he’s closer to Clouseau than Connery. Playing off Scott Bakula’s straight man, the brilliant double act matches The Spy Who Loved Me composer Marvin Hamlisch’s score, creating a caper that feels more 1970s than 1992.
As the farcical fibs begin to unravel, Soderbergh keeps the frame tightly centred on his wannabe spook. Lapping up Damon’s dazzling performance, it’s a testament to the actor’s comic timing and ability to transform into almost anybody – he put on 30 pounds to play the part (not including the false moustache). Standing by her chubby hubby, Ginger (Lynskey) is a devoted housewife, keen to keep her marriage in tact, not to mention their luxurious life, which is funded by his fraud and embezzling. Oh yeah, he’s done that too.
Driving the authorities nuts, Whitacre’s weird and wonderful web of deceit soon becomes hard to follow – he digs himself in deeper every scene, but never runs out of ingenious explanations. The glory of the mess comes from this uncertain blend of truth and fiction, but it’s that in itself which can’t help but confuse. Did the government really believe him for that long? Should we feel sorry for the guy or just laugh at him?
Compressing a 600-page book into a 100-minute feature film is an impressive feat. Treating the absurd events with a comic tone even more so. But as Scott Burns’ screenplay strives to showcase the strange psychosis of Mark’s mind, it goes a little too crazy itself, which saps away much of the suspense. The digressive voiceovers, which have no connection to the things on-screen, are an inspired, hilarious touch. But if you think about the truth and lies too much, you start talking to yourself as well. High on laughs but low on tension, the film, like Mark, is flawed, funny and completely bonkers.
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