- RatedNC16 /GenreComedy, Crime, Thriller
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Rating: 4 out of 5
The Man Who Knew Too Little, or The Man Who Knew Too Much? Maybe both.
One can never quite figure out Mark Whitacre, the whistle-blowing central character of director Steven Soderbergh's slow-burning dark comedy, and where he stands on matters of corporate malfeasance or human morality.
The true Whitacre, hidden behind the nebbish, milquetoast demeanour, is just as elusive as the genuine course of events depicted in the film, which is ironically based on a true story made infinitely more interesting by Whitacre's web of lies and questionable integrity.
Maybe this film could have been made as a drama or a thriller, along the lines of The Insider from ten years ago, but as Soderbergh and his excellent lead actor Matt Damon demonstrate, it's possible to produce a comic masterpiece based on the character study of one complex, bizarre individual, whom you would suspect correctly is suffering from some form of mental illness.
The film begins with Damon effortlessly assuming the persona of Whitacre, a successful executive with an agricultural conglomerate on the fast track to the top. (It says something about this Oscar-calibre actor, who's been voted on "world's sexiest men" lists, and his priorities when he takes on such an unglamorous and relatively low-key role.)
All seems well for Whitacre, who is earning a high six-figure salary and a contender to succeed his boss, until his career is derailed by an FBI investigation into price-fixing practices in his company - initiated by himself. Yes, rather improbably, Whitacre offers himself up to the FBI as a mole, and proceeds to spend several years taping incriminating meetings and conversations.
Throughout the investigation, Whitacre is asked time and again: Why are you doing this? He could have gotten away scot-free and enjoyed a cushy, high-flying career, but his actions jeopardise everything he holds dear in his life, including the well-being of his marriage. His proffered response that he is simply doing the right thing is hard to swallow, considering how much he stands to lose.
So where's the humour in all this? Firstly, Whitacre has delusions of grandeur and bungles his way through a number of increasingly risky covert operations - he stares right into his hidden camera, in clear view of his colleagues, and develops a penchant for narrating his recordings - yet stunningly manages to achieve substantive results. (I'm double-O fourteen because I'm twice as smart as double-O seven, he says at one point.)
Secondly, the audience is privy to an endless stream of inane thoughts percolating through Whitacre's brain. They run the gamut from musings on the pronunciation of German words, underwear, Michael Crichton novels, the amino acid lysine, to how wool feels on skin, polar bears, and harmless butterflies that have the temerity to mimic colourful, poisonous butterflies.
"They're just flying around looking dangerous, getting by on their looks," he says, indignant.
At first these seem innocuous and vaguely ridiculous, but the comic-quality of these thoughts gradually reach laugh-out loud proportions and become instructive on Whitacre's psyche, and how it starts to crumble under growing stress.
Evidence that this stands out as one of the best understated comedies ever made, and one of the funniest films of the year, along with The Hangover, comes in the form of the pitch-perfect awkward comedy sequences that Soderbergh orchestrates, with strong assistance from Damon and his supporting cast.
As these situations get more preposterous and mind-numbingly absurd, the priceless incredulousness expressed by the characters around Whitacre heightens, and the comic hits pack more punch and become unerring in their accuracy.
From this film, one may not be able to grasp with any certainty the enigma of Whitacre, the Michael Scott of whistle-blowers. However, you'll likely to come away convinced that Soderbergh and Damon are leaders among their peers and at the top of their game. Honestly.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!" Michael Corleone, The Godfather, Part III (1990).