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movies / September 20, 2009
By Eileen Jones


If you think our culture is totally, horribly, permanently screwed up, go see The Informant! Because it’s a gallows-humor study of how/why we are totally, horribly, permanently screwed up, so it gives you an opportunity to consider the question. But if you don’t want to do that, don’t go. You’ll find it boring, or an example of pernicious “blank irony,” or something.

You’ll agree with LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan:

[Director Steven] Soderbergh’s apparent resolve to tell interesting stories in uninteresting ways has given his recent work a distinct anti-audience bias….”The Informant!” was made by Soderbergh largely to amuse himself. He read a story about a real-life corporate whistle-blower and decided, for reasons only he knows, that it had the makings of a wacky comedy starring an overweight Matt Damon. The result, not unlike those sounds only dogs can hear, is not the most promising way to involve people outside the director’s inner circle.

God, I love Kenneth Turan! He’s so useful! He’s a member of that new elite group, The Reliably Wrong. He’s like the Bill Kristol of film critics!

Presumably Turan wants us all to see The Insider again, Michael Mann’s typically gorgeous but bathetic celebration of the Doomed Male. The Insider gives us a corporate whistleblower, played by Russell Crowe, whose porky-man’s paradise is lost when he starts informing on his corrupt company. He has to give up being an executive fatcat who plays golf and has a perfect American nuclear family complete with suburban McMansion, mean wife, and two-point-three annoying kids.

If that kind of tragic sacrifice brings a tear to your eye, skip The Informant! It’s not the film for you.

The Informant, Kurt Eichenwald’s solemn, non-fiction, no-exclamation-point book, is about how go-getter young exec Mark Whitacre wore a wire for the FBI to get proof of price-fixing at agribusiness conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), only to imperil the government’s case against ADM with revelations of his own bottomless corruption. Whitacre’s habitual acts of fraud and embezzlement went unnoticed for years because they dovetailed perfectly with general ADM corporate practices.

Presumably Soderbergh and his screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum) recognized the black comedy in the book The Informant, thought about how it matched up with the black comedy we’ve been living in America since at least the 1970s, and set to work bringing it to the public’s attention.

It’s actually pretty straightforward, but some critics are really wrestling with Soderbergh’s approach to the material. The exclamation point in the title, for one thing, and the hideous ‘70s font titles announcing dates and locations. Then there’s the outrageously upbeat Marvin Hamlisch score—he’s the guy who scored Woody Allen’s early comedies like Take the Money and Run, but also cursed us with Barbra Streisand songs like “The Way We Were.” What’s with all the appalling ‘70s funkadelics in a film that’s so insistently set in the early ‘90s, when most of the action took place?


Well, here’s my theory: the ‘70s was when it first became clear that life in America was going to suck forevermore. This was demonstrated everywhere in a manifestation of radical ugliness. Every new building was ugly, all clothing was ugly, the colors were ugly, the hair was ugly, the music was ugly, the government was ugly, international politics were ugly, the new synthetics were ugly, the job prospects were ugly, corporate policies were ugly and their pollution was ugly, so therefore the very air and water were ugly. It was inescapable, though decorated with yellow smiley faces and disco glitter. And it stuck. ‘70s ugliness hung on more stubbornly than herpes. That was when everything went beige, and to this day, leprous beige surrounds us.

The overall visual impression of The Informant! is, correspondingly, a crappy earth-tone smear that looks a lot like ugly ‘70s filmmaking.

Critics who think The Informant! is a good film, such as Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune, try to make the cinematography sound beautiful:

Soderbergh shot the film on crisp, honey-hued high-definition digital video, set largely in generic Midwestern office spaces.

Critics who think the film is bad, such as James Verniere of The Boston Herald, harp on its ugliness:

Soderbergh, who serves as his own cinematographer, should have fired himself. Scene shots with the digital Red camera are suffused with a corn-syrupy yellow haze. Mark is surrounded by a cloudy aura as if he’s oozing ectoplasm.

But the thing is—see if you can handle this amazing paradox—the movie is both ugly and good. (Like many of the best ‘70s films.)

Matt Damon plays Mark Whitacre as one of those energetic, blank-eyed, jackass businessmen you see everywhere in this country. They all have firm used-car-salesmen handshakes and an endless supply of can-do patter sprinkled with homilies supposedly drawn from their life experience to illustrate their point, which is why you should give them money or let them screw you over somehow. Many of them are impressively educated, like Whitacre, but that never intrudes on their squareheaded go-to-guy personae. These glad-handing jerks in ties seem laughable, but they’ve taken over the world, so who’s laughing now?

Damon’s great. I admit I misjudged Damon, didn’t appreciate his early performances, found him dull till The Bourne Identity. He really has a profound understanding of how to make his regular-Joe qualities shock you when you realize what else he’s got going on.

In the case of Mark Whitacre, he’s apparently a soulless schmoe flattering himself he’s leading a heroic but tormented double-life, like Tom Cruise in The Firm, or he’s a James Bond figure using ruthless measure to outwit even more ruthless “bad guys.” He jokingly refers to himself as “double-oh-fourteen” because he’s “twice as smart as double-oh-seven.” In his voice-over narration, Whitacre obsesses on doubles, like two kinds of butterflies that look identical, but one is poisonous to birds.

This is a huge gift to film critics. We like us a nice juicy metaphor we can sink our teeth into, y’know. Michael Sragow of The Baltimore Sun explains this one to us:

The technique of the “unreliable narrator” has been employed to spectacular effect in films like “The Usual Suspects” and “Fight Club.” What’s original about its use in “The Informant!” is that it’s alternately slap-happy and dead-on metaphoric….Whitacre fixates on double things, like those nearly identical butterflies. Before long, you suspect a doubleness in his own character.

Really, you should go see this movie, even if only for the huge laughs you’ll get out of reading the reviews afterward. HIGH-larious. Note how quickly Sragow forgets the narrator is “unreliable,” though he just announced it himself, and goes right on to buy Whitacre’s doubles fixation: “Before long, you suspect a doubleness in his own character.”

But there IS no “doubleness” in his character. He can’t really be said to have the semblance of ONE character, much less the luxury of a double. All he has is a successful rhetorical performance honed over time. It seems stock and stiff, but turns out to be plenty adaptable, at least within the narrow range of dopey sensibilities that thrive in this beige world. Over and over in the movie, Whitacre sits down with FBI agents (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale), his lawyer (Tony Hale), his wife (Melanie Lynsky), his fellow executives, and they all demand very seriously that he be completely honest this time, that he tell the whole truth. And each time it gets funnier when he sincerely agrees, admits he lied the last time for various reasons, and plunges right into the latest iteration of his story, with appropriate stances and gestures.

“Before long” we get it: he can reconstruct the story forever, he’s a bottomless pit of specious accounts. His agenda IS the reconstruction of his story for an appreciative audience, because that is the height of evolutionary adaptability in a simultaneously corrupt and clueless world. At a certain point the FBI agents are momentarily flummoxed when someone asks them the obvious question, “What’s this guy’s agenda?” They’ve bought into the idea that he’s an Insider-type whistle-blower, motivated by some confusing combo of outraged morals and family values. But that account doesn’t fit the facts; the greedy embezzler account doesn’t totally fit either; nothing fits for long as the revelations of Whitacre’s activities unfold.

Or maybe they all fit, different stories at different moments of the day. Tough to tell.

However, there’s one compelling through-line to Whitacre’s actions: he’s the most enthusiastic narrator ever. The film’s previews play up his bumbling insistence on “narrating” the undercover tapes he’s making (“I’m entering the building…”), but he’s also an inveterate storyteller within the world of the film, frequently throwing out his mini-bio about being tragically orphaned at a young age and then adopted by a rich man, “which was a huge break for me!”

On top of that, he provides the narration for the film as a whole. This narration is very confusing to some, because, with a few notable exceptions, it doesn’t “match” or directly refer to what’s happening onscreen. For example, Whitacre wonders idly how to pronounce “Porsche” correctly, or why, when hunting their prey, polar bears know to hide their own black noses so that they’ll more completely blend in with their snowy landscape.

If you’re thinking that such narrated points aren’t all that hard to connect to the action in the film, well—you’re right. But critics, you know, we struggle with what might seem to be really obvious things.

Here’s Michael Sragow again (he’s almost as good as Kenneth Turan) on the problem with the film’s narration:

The problem is, the movie feels as if it’s been hermetically sealed in Whitacre’s (or maybe Soderbergh’s) head. The movie wants to be a thinking-man’s fun ride, yet lets one or two big ironies go without an imaginative detour or even, in one case, a sideways glance. (ADM’s furtherance of Big Agra is probably more damaging to consumers than price-fixing.)

This is a wonderful criticism, because the movie opens with an ironic indictment of “Big Agra” in the form of Whitacre’s paean to corn, and how courtesy of agribusinesses like ADM, corn products are now in everything we eat and wear and touch and buy. Our contemporary sense of how horrible this has turned out to be is supposed to be throbbing during this entire opening sequence. But it makes sense that Sragow missed the gist, since the movie’s plot isn’t specifically centered on the horrors of a monstrous lab-engineered corn-infused world, and none of the characters specifically crusades against agribusiness with a No Big Agra sign, and the movie isn’t called Corn: The Silent Killer.

See The Informant! if only to help out the critics who are getting migraines trying to understand it; send them your comments explaining the movie to them. Dana Stevens of Slate titles his review “The Informant! Steven Soderbergh Confuses Me!”

Why so confused? Because Stevens doesn’t fully understand the main character, Mark Whitacre:

…if I’m going to descend into a delusional netherworld with a movie’s protagonist, I need to emerge from it with some clearer sense of who he is. Soderbergh; his screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns …and, to some extent, Damon all seem unclear on just how well we’re supposed to know Mark Whitacre or how we should feel about him.

They haven’t even told us how to feel! The nerve of these filmmakers! They leave this giant hole of uncertainty in the middle of a narrative about a man who succeeds in America by reflecting back to his various audiences what they want to believe! Sheesh, that incompetent hack Herman Melville did just the same sort of sloppy work in The Confidence Man!

Dana Stevens must’ve just about had a stroke at the end of the movie when Mark Whitacre says his last line, his final indication of what he might have done and who he might really be: “I don’t know, you tell me!”

But really, the film’s not confusing, I swear. In its own way, this is realism so basic it’s a bit embarrassing, practically telling us to look around and watch it happening live. Consider all the people you’ve had to deal with who seem like blank-eyed cliché-spewing automatons, and all the everyday lying sociopaths, and all the shameless careerist shills, and the endlessly creative rationalizers who could justify killing you for a nickel. And don’t forget, mixed in liberally amongst them, all the Candide-types who ignore all the horrors and believe everything is for the best in the best of all possible beige worlds.

In other words, think of your friends and neighbors, your bosses and co-workers, you relatives, your significant others, yourself maybe, and draw the easy links in the chain to Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Enron, Archer Daniels Midland. And wonder, still, how we all got so completely screwed up.


Add your own

  • 1. firewalkwithme  |  September 20th, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    Your finest review yet, Ms. Jones.

  • 2. Jack Reynolds  |  September 20th, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    Bill Kristol’s profile reminds me of Beavis.

  • 3. Homer Erotic  |  September 20th, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    And wonder, still, how we all got so completely screwed up.

    And look forward to the imminent apocalypse with cackling, bitter, Emperor-Palpatine-like glee.

  • 4. spiffo massive  |  September 20th, 2009 at 11:01 pm

    yet another awesome review by Eileen! I was going to watch this film anyway because I love the work Matt has done of late, but after reading this, I’m definitely going to watch it!

  • 5. John  |  September 21st, 2009 at 12:13 am

    This is so clearly written by Dolan it’s a little scary:

    the use of the word “bathetic:” the one and only writer i’ve ever seen use this word is Dolan

    the description of the physical deterioration and ugliness of the post ’70s world: a clear theme from his book Pleasant Hell. yes, this is true, but i haven’t seen or read anybody except for dolan who has ever articulated the fate of the world in this way

    the reference to “beige”-ism: dead giveaway. One writer refers to the beigeocracy and all of the beigists: it’s Dolan. The only other person who has ever used the word in this way is Ames, who was one of Dolan’s disciples.

    I saw a reference to a real life Eileen Jones in, I think, some of Ames’ writing. Is she a fictional construct of Dolan who is being further perpetuated by Ames? That’s likely to be the case.

    Well, whatever the case, I have to wonder why Exiled is using so many pseudonyms

  • 6. Chiastic  |  September 21st, 2009 at 12:25 am

    I’d have sex with Eileen Jones.

  • 7. Toni M  |  September 21st, 2009 at 2:29 am

    Eileen, I hope you understand the immense responsibility you have now taken on as the only reliable filter for new movies. Your taste is impeccable. Thank you.

  • 8. TL  |  September 21st, 2009 at 5:29 am

    Yes, the 70s were ugly, but the upside was that even the pretty people willingly made themselves look ugly(-ier) too, like the rest of us, and therefore made it all bareable. In the last 2-3 decades, we have it constantly being shoved in our face, 25/8.

  • 9. DarthFurious  |  September 21st, 2009 at 6:10 am

    “Consider all the people you’ve had to deal with who seem like blank-eyed cliché-spewing automatons, and all the everyday lying sociopaths, and all the shameless careerist shills, and the endlessly creative rationalizers who could justify killing you for a nickel. And don’t forget, mixed in liberally amongst them, all the Candide-types who ignore all the horrors and believe everything is for the best in the best of all possible beige worlds.

    In other words, think of your friends and neighbors, your bosses and co-workers, you relatives, your significant others, yourself maybe, and draw the easy links in the chain to Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Enron, Archer Daniels Midland. And wonder, still, how we all got so completely screwed up.”

    Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. It brought tears to my eyes.

    Oh, and the answer to the last question is simple: Our wealthy masters converted us all to the religion of the Great Capital God of the West. We live now in their idea of a “new heaven and a new earth” to borrow the words of the revelator.

  • 10. Mads Mikkelsen  |  September 21st, 2009 at 6:48 am

    Dolan is using pseudonyms now because he finally learned that if he wants to have an opinion and remain gainfully employed, he can’t publish his opinion under his employed name.

  • 11. WE  |  September 21st, 2009 at 6:51 am

    Excellent review, to see Mark Whitacre as endemic of the entire culture and not just a quirk in a strange world that the viewer can willfully distance himself/herself from seems to be the crux of it. We’ve all encountered the Whitacre species as they tend to congregate in airports, countless conversations in smoking lounges and gates, and the strange thing is, they are all the same, it’s almost as if they don’t come from anywhere and yet they come from everywhere.

    They all have this command presence kind of voice, always didactic even about the most banal things, when you talk to them for long enough your mind tends to go blank, it’s almost as if you’ve been hypnotized. They’re narcissists, and like all narcissists they don’t really have a developed sense of self, therefore they project this cardboard image of a person, just like Lumbergh from Office Space, which is what makes the idea of him fucking so funny, because you cannot imagine these people fucking, you can’t imagine them doing anything remotely human.

    The 70s thing seems to work because most of middle America and the south is stuck in the 70s, when fast food kitsch and wood paneled hell became the perfect backdrop for this cardboard cutout of a species. I feel like America has become Sartre’s vision of hell, take out the third world inner cities, third world coal mining towns and what’s left outside of a few pockets of resistance; a suburban backdrop filled with Mark Whitacre’s, a life-sized diorama.

  • 12. Peter  |  September 21st, 2009 at 7:49 am


    I’ve been wondering whether Jones is another Dolan psuedonym, and I’m about fifty-fifty on it. References to to Beigeism come from other writers on this site, like Ames. It could be that Jones is real, knows Dolan, and picked up the term from him (or vice-versa). I’ve started using it in day-to-day conversation, and I only read them on the internet, so that’s not totally out of the question. Dolan referred to an Eileen Jones in his piece on Michael Moore way back in the early 00s, so either she’s real or he planned this psuedonym way, way in advance. Both are possible; at bottom I don’t care that much, but it’s worth some idle think-time.

  • 13. George B  |  September 21st, 2009 at 9:45 am

    I don’t get how Eileen could be Dolan: she’s don radio interviews. They’ve been posted here. Dolan doesn’t have that much time on his hands. Why does she refer to “The Beige”? Because it’s a good description and she reads the eXile.

    But yeah, this is an excellent review. “They haven’t even told us how to feel! The nerve of these filmmakers! They leave this giant hole of uncertainty in the middle of a narrative about a man who succeeds in America by reflecting back to his various audiences what they want to believe!” made me laugh, then desperately hunt for someone to send the article to.

  • 14. Doom  |  September 21st, 2009 at 11:26 am

    I operate under the assumption all eXiled writers are Dolan, even Ames, who is actually just a very elaborate costume, much like Eddie Murphy’s characters in various films.

  • 15. e0  |  September 21st, 2009 at 11:47 am is completely written by John Dolan. All the articles all the time. Notice how we only see footage of Mark Ames and never Dolan. Mark Ames is just another name of John Dolan, used for public appearances.

    Really the whole movie (The Informant) is just a thinly veiled retelling of the Spanish Civil War. Read the wikipedia entry and then watch the movie. Obvious really.

  • 16. Deep Throat  |  September 21st, 2009 at 12:14 pm


    Matt Taibbi is also Dolan.

  • 17. Mark  |  September 21st, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    A quick Google search reveals that “Eileen Jones is Assistant Professor and Program Chair of Film Studies at Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film & Media Arts.” If I were writing on this website, my Dolan influences would be on display too.

  • 18. Kevin Riley O'Keeffe  |  September 21st, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    I don’t really know what to say, except that one day Martians are going to be sifting through the rubble of American civilization, and they’re going to come across a cultural artifact – a cache of (c)rap “music” CDs? A stack of issues from The Weekly Standard? A DVR still loaded with “reality” TV shows? Almost anything would do – and suddenly, a light is going to go off:

    “Oh, I get it now. They didn’t DESERVE to survive.”

  • 19. aleke  |  September 21st, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    I Am Dolan. You Are Dolan. We Are Dolan

  • 20. DocAmazing  |  September 21st, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    One thing that didn’t get mentioned: Didn’t Matt Damon also star in The Talented Mr. Ripley, as another tabula rasa/I-am-who-you-want-me-to-be type character?

  • 21. rick  |  September 21st, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    The pseudonym detectives are retards.

  • 22. mechagodzilla  |  September 21st, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    I think that both Ms. Jones and all the other reviewers are equally infuriated and saddened by the status quo, the chain of events that brought us to this point (in the US but not limited to it, about ADM and the current big story of corporate rampage but not only that), and the clumsy tools that as ever are our only ones; the only difference is the way they channel it.

    I say this because I want to believe the best of people if only because we are so bitterly incapable of gauging the depth of their worst.

  • 23. Pádraig Ó Buth Chanain  |  September 21st, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    @18. …”American civilization”…

    Say what?!

  • 24. Jay  |  September 22nd, 2009 at 4:04 am

    Good review, but consider spoiler warnings. I read this review yesterday, then went to see the movie. If you know in advance that he’s lying all the time, the movie loses any tension.

  • 25. Expat in BY  |  September 22nd, 2009 at 4:31 am

    I too think everything here is written by Dolan, but also that Dolan is really a secret pseudonym for Dan Savage. I mean, look at the proximity between Victoria, BC, and Seattle. It’s too obvious.

    We should all ask Elaine for sex advice now. (Excellent article, btw.)

  • 26. Mark  |  September 22nd, 2009 at 7:14 am

    Eileen Jones has done radio interviews? Where?

  • 27. Wozzi  |  September 22nd, 2009 at 8:15 am

    The movie is somewhat like “Burn After Reading” but for whatever reason, critics were so giddy seeing Brad Pitt and George Clooney on screen that they didn’t even bother to question what the characters were doing and why (if at all the characters knew).

    Here, its bland Matt Damon and they suddenly are so confused and what not.

  • 28. doctor k  |  September 22nd, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    fucking wonderful. I love these clueless-critics pieces more than the straight reviews themselves.

  • 29. Andy Nowicki  |  September 22nd, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Doc Amazing, you are right about the similarities to Damon’s Mr. Ripley character, although Whitacre is much more subtly sinister. A very good movie, and a great review, whoever the author might be.

  • 30. bigbunzfagolino  |  September 22nd, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    Eileen jons is such goo whita. I wike huh witing belly much.

  • 31. Patrick  |  September 25th, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    Way to stick it to Big Agra.

  • 32. sdasda dsasdasda  |  February 10th, 2017 at 4:08 am

    loved it

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