Like some of the food made with the substances produced by the corporation at the heart of this story, this movie is pleasant but leaves a sour aftertaste. It is inspired by the real-life story of one of the most massive cases of corporate corruption and crime in US history. Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM) paid the then-record antitrust fine of $100 million and its top executives went to jail because of a global conspiracy to fix prices and production in violation of antitrust laws. None of this would have been uncovered without the cooperation of a top executive named Mark Whitacre. This film’s decision to present the story as farce and to focus on Whitacre and his flakier qualities is entertaining but unsatisfying.
Matt Damon plays Whitacre with an extra 30 pounds and a toupee that looks like a bird’s nest. He is a PhD but he is less an absent-minded professor type than a free-association, mind-like-a-pinball machine type, and we are privy to his thoughts as they go off in an almost random assortment of directions, often missing the point of what is going on around him as he muses about various questions and reassures himself. When the FBI is brought in to investigate an extortion attempt he reported, Whitacre tells the agent (“Star Trek’s: Enterprise’s” Scott Bakula) that he knows about something much bigger. This leads to an undercover operation spanning years and continents as Whitacre wears a wire to tape more than 200 conversations. He was one of the highest-ranking corporate officials ever to work as an informant. He was also embezzling millions of dollars and having a breakdown, possibly as a result of the stress of leading a double life.
Director Steven Soderburgh also gave us a moving drama about the feisty heroine Erin Brockovich, whose failings were quirky and endearing. Now he brings us a story about another real-life whistleblower presented as farce, with a bright, sit-com-y score by Marvin Hamlisch and the pacing and fonts of a 70’s comedy, familiar faces from television (including Tom and Dick Smothers), and seems to do everything possible to keep us from caring about the squirrelly main character. Whitacre, an accomplished man with a PhD (and now has several post-graduated degrees) who was a rising star at the company, comes across as clumsy, clueless, and narcissistic. We hear his random thoughts about an incongruous variety of topics. They come across as the musings of a doofus but they also show us his scientific curiosity and analytic distance. And we see how both contribute to his success and his downfall.
The film touches on the incongruity of his being sentenced to a jail term more than twice that of the executives responsible for crimes many times the order of magnitude in size and impact, but the reaction it seems to expect from us is a “what do you expect” rather than any sense of outrage. Once again, those who steal a small amount from hundreds of millions of people receive nominal consequences while those who steal a substantial sum from one place take the fall. Economists estimated that the cost to American citizens of one price-fixing case involving electrical equipment in 1961 was greater than all of the robberies of that year. The cost of the ADM price-fixing, based on the explicit view that “the customers are the enemy,” is incalculable. This film perpetuates the lack of understanding about these crimes in favor of cheap shots at the life-shattering impact of the investigation and the enabling, even exploitive behavior of the law enforcement officials who used him and then left him to deal with the consequences. Worst of all, it leaves us with a feeling of smug superiority when it should be illuminating the kind of thinking from both corporate and government officials that led us to the current financial collapse.
Actress Glenn Close interviewed writer/director/voice actor Bob Peterson of Pixar about “Up” and especially about dogs, the dogs in his life and the dogs on screen. Peterson provided the voice for the adorable Dug, one of the most popular characters in the movie.
I wrote Dug as a combination of all the dogs I’ve owned. Marcella, Precious, Rosy, and Ava are all in there. The distractibility of Dug (SQUIRREL!!) is based on a game I’d play with my dogs. On a hot day the dogs would be panting to cool themselves down. So, I’d jump in and pant along with them. Then I’d stop abruptly and pretend I’d seen something important. The dogs would do the same and go to attention along with me. Long pause. Then, everyone back to panting. It was hilarious. Also I’ve noticed that dogs have an amazing capacity to give love immediately to people that they meet for the first time. Hence the line “I have just met you and I love you.” Dug says this to our old man character, Carl, when they first meet. It’s a challenge to Carl accept his new “family” who loves him and needs his attention.
And check out Entertainment Weekly’s list of the top 50 dogs in movies and television, in honor of the Westminster dog show.
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Parents try very hard to protect their children and at the same time teach them to be independent. And then we struggle to accept the consequences. That is what has happened to Frank Goode (Robert DeNiro), a recent widower preparing for a visit from his four grown children. When all four of them cancel, he decides to get his suitcase out of the attic and go see each of them. Well, he goes to visit each of them — without calling to let them know. But seeing them will take a little longer.
Based on the 1990 Italian film “Stanno tutti bene,” this is a quietly moving story of a family struggling to re-connect. Like many families, this one had one member, the mother, who operated as a communications hub and mediator. Without her, the grown children feel that their primary obligation is to protect their father, in part because that is what their mother did and in part because no one seems to know how to tell him that one of his children is in terrible trouble.
Frank takes the train, telling the other passengers that he helped to create the miles of telephone wire they are passing by. A million miles of wire to raise his family. And now, his children are constantly on cell phones that communicate without the tangible connection of wires. And no one is communicating with him.
What Frank thought of as encouragement they now see as impossibly high expectations, and each of them is afraid of letting him down. When Frank first arrives, he sees the children as they were. The married woman with a teen-age son (Kate Beckinsale) appears to him as a little girl (Beckinsale’s real-life daughter, Lily Mo Sheen). Director Kirk Jones adds a dreamlike, poetic tone to the story with these encounters, especially one near the end of the film when Frank sees the family gathering he was hoping for, with his sons and daughters appearing to him as the children they were, but letting him see and tell them the truth. Jones, who also wrote the screenplay, makes good use of the vast and varied American landscape as a metaphor for the distances and the connections between the characters. The simple, direct mode of the telephone lines Frank covered so carefully has splintered into a dozen ways of staying in touch — ways that can just as easily be frustrating just-misses that make us feel even more isolated. The movie gently shows us the challenges of maintaining those connections and the inevitability of getting it wrong sometimes — but also that even with that certainty, the importance of trying is what keeps everybody fine.