(Warner Brothers) Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey, Eddie Jemison, Rusty Schwimmer, Patton Oswalt, Tom Papa, Clancy Brown. Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. However, capturing truth can be a lot like trying to grab a minnow with your bare hands; it has a tendency to slip through your fingers.
Mark Whitacre (Damon) is a young, rising executive at Archer Daniels Midland, a Fortune 500 company based in Decatur, Illinois who simply put, handle food and food additives. Chances are, something you ate today came from them. Whitacre is a trained biochemist who suspects that a new additive his team is working on that they haven’t gotten to work quite right is being sabotaged by Japanese corporate interests, who are working on a competing substance. The FBI is called in to investigate and although they find no evidence of espionage, Whitacre calls Agent Brian Shepard (Bakula) aside.
It seems Whitacre has evidence that ADM has been engaged in price-fixing on a corn derivative called Lysine that is used in just about everything, from breakfast cereals to sodas. In doing this, ADM has defrauded consumers out of literally billions of dollars, and done it invisibly. Shepard and his partner, the stern and suspicious Bob Herndon (McHale) are incredulous but intrigued; if Whitacre is telling the truth, this could turn out to be one of the most important corporate crimes in history.
Whitacre agrees to wear a wire and get evidence of ADM executives agreeing to price-fixing with their competitors. In the meantime, Shepard begins to get uneasy as Whitacre begins to act erratically. That gets overshadowed as Whitacre gets the evidence they need, but more comes out than Whitacre bargained for.
This is a true story although it has been embellished for dramatic purposes. The essential facts, however, are the same. Soderbergh is at his best here, utilizing Damon’s voice-over narration as a mood-setter rather than a story-advancer. Marvin Hamlisch’s lounge lizard score sounds like it came straight out of a 60s spy movie, which is exactly the right metaphor for the movie. Whitacre fancies himself as James Bond, only twice as smart. He’s not quite as urbane or witty, unfortunately.
Damon was an inspired casting choice and he delivers a performance that will surely go down as one of the best of his career. He gained 30 pounds for the role, wears a toupee that is frankly embarrassing and a moustache that is pure 70s porn star, all the while fidgeting and lumbering about, perhaps the most feckless hero to come onscreen in decades.
He is supported by Lynskey as his long-suffering wife Ginger, who is mousy yet manipulative, but in her own curious way very supportive and loving. The two have lovely chemistry that makes the relationship realistic. Bakula, whose career has flourished in television sci-fi fare such as “Quantum Leap” and “Star Trek: Enterprise” plays his supporting role note perfectly. His performance is often overlooked because Damon’s is so good, but Bakula creates a character who is often confused by the behavior of his informant, but not only learns to appreciate his courage but becomes his biggest defender when things go south.
Mark Whitacre is definitely a product of the Midwest. He’s straight-forward, a little bit quirky and ultimately somewhat enigmatic. There’s no doubt he is an American hero, the highest-ranking executive to ever blow the whistle on an American company, but he is also an American tragedy. The twist in the movie’s final reel is heartbreaking but inevitable. No good deed goes unpunished, after all.
This is ostensibly a comedy but it’s certainly as dry as a cornfield in October. Not everyone will appreciate the dry wit that Soderbergh evinces here. Yes, this is a very cleverly written and insightful script, but I’ve noticed that some folks just don’t get humor that isn’t in their face and over-the-top. Still, I laughed as hard at this as I had any one of Judd Apatow’s comedies, which is saying something.
WHY RENT THIS: An intelligent, well-written script bolsters a career highlight performance by Damon.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The comedy is so dry that some may wind up scratching their heads with the definite feeling that they are somehow the butt of an even bigger joke.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of foul language which may give some parents pause; frankly it’s probably no worse than most teens hear every day at school, so I wouldn’t have a problem letting older teens see this.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Smothers Brothers appear in separate but equally memorable cameos.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $41.7M on a $22M production budget; the movie broke even.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: The Rocker