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Matt Damon is 'The Informant!'

"How about this guy Whitacre?" a Justice Department lawyer marvels. "He's making three hundred and fifty grand a year and he turns informer. When does that happen?"...

'The Informant!'
Matt Damon stars as Mark Whitacre in the offbeat comedy, "The Informant!," from Warner Bros. Pictures. (Warner Bros./MCT)

"How about this guy Whitacre?" a Justice Department lawyer marvels. "He's making three hundred and fifty grand a year and he turns informer. When does that happen?"

That's the mystery of Steven Soderbergh's "The Informant!," a smart, silly corporate crime comedy. It's an absurd but true story that plays like a gag reel from Soderbergh's socially conscious "Erin Brockovich."

Mark Whitacre was a star executive at agri-giant Archer Daniels Midland who tattled on the company's vast international price-fixing scheme. He smuggled a wire into hundreds of meetings in the 1990s, securing the kind of direct evidence of white-collar conspiracy that prosecutors dream about. Asked why, Whitacre (porky, dorky Matt Damon) gets self-righteous, huffing, "Things are going on I don't approve of."

Hooey. The film -- stylishly scripted by Scott Z. Burns ("The Bourne Ultimatum") -- wisely leaves Whitacre's motivations unresolved. He probably didn't understand them himself; he's not the type to ruminate. But Soderbergh's portrait of his life is a detailed report on beige bourgeois banality. His life is conventional, comfortable (nice wife, nice kids, nice house) and entirely adventure-free. Naturally Mark wanted to escape. He was bored stiff. And, beneath his bland exterior, a little bit nuts.

So when he meets a pair of poker-faced FBI agents (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale) investigating a report of sabotage, his eyes spark with childlike enthusiasm. The porky, dorky manager imagines himself a superspy, living a secret life of danger and intrigue.

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Whitacre throws himself into his assignments with the unfocused energy of a big, lovable mutt, jeopardizing the sting time and again. He shows his briefcase/recorder to his groundskeeper, bragging that he's code-named 0014 because he's "twice as smart as 007." But his mind wanders during crucial events -- hilarious stream-of-consciousness monologues drifting to thoughts of polar bears and the most efficient use of shower time. His scrambled thoughts raise suspicions: He seems to believe what he's saying, but should we?

The film's casting is spot on. Damon is delightful playing someone who is a terrible actor. Wearing a ghastly muffin-shaped hairdo, an ill-advised mustache and 30 extra pounds around his waist, he's hardly recognizable as lethal Jason Bourne. Soderbergh keeps the tone light even in detail-dense scenes by casting scores of comedians to underplay straight roles. Patton Oswalt is an exasperated fed; Tom Smothers plays ADM honcho Dwayne Andreas; his brother, Dick, plays a judge trying to make sense of the lunatic court case.

Soderbergh's knack for tumultuous stories shines here. Burns' script lays down just enough information to keep us on track and ready for the next surprise. And it drills deeper into the mysteries of human nature than most business thrillers, which typically build to a preordained conclusion -- criminality is a natural outgrowth of competitive corporate life.

"The Informant!" demolishes such tidy resolutions. The further we delve into the case, the more elusive the truth appears, and the weirder the antihero's motives. Whitacre's increasingly peculiar behavior insinuates that some people just come off the assembly line aberrant.

"The Informant!" leaves a joshing, worrisome implication hanging in the air: No matter how many snitches and spies we employ, we'll never exterminate folly. Fact is, we'll probably never understand it.

Related Topics: MOVIES
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