'The Informant!'

Film goofs around lightheartedly while still doing some justice to the true-life story.

The wacky little brother of “Erin Brockovich,” “The Informant!” goofs around lightheartedly while still doing some justice to the true-life story of a zealous but wildly delusional corporate whistle-blower. A larky outing for director Steven Soderbergh after the somber rigors of “Che” and “The Girlfriend Experience,” the pic showcases an excellent performance by a chubbed-out Matt Damon as a Midwestern executive who’s so smart he’s dumb. Amusingly eccentric rather than outright funny, this Warner Bros. release will have to rely mostly on Damon for its B.O., which looks to be modest.

Having already done a major film that called out big business with a straight face, Soderbergh returns to the same arena with a cocked eyebrow and lots of jokers up his sleeve. The exclamation point on the title and the jaunty, old-fashioned score by Marvin Hamlisch serve as immediate tipoffs as to the film’s hyperreal intentions, which will inevitably put some viewers off, but for others will provide an amusing, original angle on the sort of story that’s almost always done with an earnest sense of self-importance. In some ways, you could call “The Informant!” Soderbergh’s Richard Lester movie, in light of his devotion to the Britain-based American director of cutting, serious comedies.

Packed out with 30 extra pounds, a moustache, artfully done hairpiece and dorky glasses, Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a gung-ho VP at a Decatur, Ill.-based agribusiness firm, Archer Daniels Midland, where “corn goes in one end and profit comes out the other.” A career biochemist entirely behind the promotion of such food additives as lysine, Mark unleashes a staggering corporate and legal tsunami when he tells his boss he’s detected a mole in the ranks that’s allowing a Japanese competitor to mess with their lysine manufacturing.

Instead of meeting a $10 million extortion demand, ADM calls in the FBI, which taps the home phone of the cooperative Mark. At the urging of his wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), Mark goes further, privately informing agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) of a massive international price-fixing scheme involving lysine. Suddenly excited — in a boyish secret-agent sort of way — at the prospect of going undercover, Mark agrees to wear a wire at work to provide the evidence the government needs to make its case, and he circles the globe trying to get executives to blurt out what is seldom addressed explicitly.

The lynchpin and most inspired stroke of the entire movie is the voiceover narration screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) has cooked up for Mark. The almost constant flow of Mark’s interior thoughts crucially signals the man’s active fantasy life, as well as his intelligence, imagination, humor and oddness. Sometimes the private commentary relates to onscreen events, but more often it’s borderline stream-of-consciousness, a wonderful conceit that still only partially reveals the protagonist, but suggests that part of him is out of touch not only with reality but with himself.

Labeling himself Agent 0014, “because I’m twice as smart as James Bond,” Mark also is obsessed with Michael Crichton novels, particularly “Rising Sun,” for its prediction of a Japanese takeover of world business. Other casual details also speak volumes, such as his huge collection of expensive European sports cars.

At a certain point, Mark’s story begins to simultaneously unravel and become more stupendous than ever, driving his FBI contacts batty — well, there used to be price-fixing but there’s not anymore; there never was a mole in the first place; once the miscreants at ADM are cleared out, Mark will be the last man standing and he’ll run the company. Over the course of 2½ years, Mark and the FBI get plenty of incriminating stuff on tape, but that’s only half the story, as Mark’s machinations become wildly more grandiose.

Soderbergh doesn’t play any of this for outright laughs but has cast quite a few comic actors in supporting roles — even the Smothers Brothers pop up in cameos, Tom as the ADMchairman, Dick as a judge — and lets the comedy emerge from the head-spinning swirl of events and mental charades. Filming in actual locations helpfully grounds the flights of the fabulist protag — even the Whitacre home at the time was used — and the corporate offices, unstylish suits and assorted bland hotels and offices exude total authenticity. Soderbergh’s lensing alter ego, Peter Andrews, again gets excellent results with the Red camera.

Damon is in very sharp form in his fifth film with Soderbergh. The thesp makes Mark brazen in his conviction that he’s always right and unremorseful about his fabrications, but never in a superior, hubristic manner; as is slowly revealed, he’s always been able to rationalize any alteration of reality that served his purposes, and even when faced with his own deviousness, he never doubts that, “I’m the good guy in all this.”

One weak spot is the portrayal of his marriage. Having known Mark since youth, Ginger sticks with him no matter what. But she has to assume a greater complicity than is gleaned from the way Mark brushes aside her inquiries into developments, and a keener awareness on her part of what goes on in his strange head would have been welcome.

The Informant!

Production

A Warner Bros. release presented in association with Participant Media and Groundswell Prods. of a Section Eight-Jaffe/Braunstein Enterprise production. Produced by Michael Jaffe, Howard Braunstein, Kurt Eichenwald, Gregory Jacobs, Jennifer Fox. Executive producers, George Clooney, Jeff Skoll, Michael London. Co-producer, Michael Polaire. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Screenplay, Scott Z. Burns, based on the book “The Informant (A True Story)” by Kurt Eichenwald.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, HD), Peter Andrews; editor, Stephen Mirrione; music, Marvin Hamlisch; production designer, Doug Meerdink; art directors, David E. Scott, William Hunter; set designers, Dawn Brown Manser, Jane Wuu; set decorator, Dan Clancy; costume designer, Shoshana Rubin; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Dennis Towns; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Larry Blake; assistant director, Gregory Jacobs; casting, Carmen Cuba. Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, Sept. 1, 2009. (In Venice Film Festival -- noncompeting; Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 108 MIN.

With

Mark Whitacre - Matt Damon FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard - Scott Bakula FBI Special Agent Bob Herndon - Joel McHale Ginger Whitacre - Melanie Lynskey Terry Wilson - Rick Overton Mick Andreas - Tom Papa Mark Cheviron - Tom Wilson Aubrey Daniel - Clancy Brown James Epstein - Tony Hale Robin Mann - Ann Cusack FBI Special Agent Dean Paisley - Allan Havey Liz Taylor - Rusty Schwimmer
With: Tom Smothers, Dick Smothers.

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