Sept. 23, 2009 12:00

Damon shines in offbeat Informant!

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The life of a whistleblower is generally stressful and unhappy. With all the disillusion, secrecy and outright deception, how could it not be?

So give Mark Whitacre his due: He can find the good side of a bad situation.

Whitacre, played by Matt Damon, is at the center of The Informant!, Steven Soderbergh’s loopy true story about a biochemist who decided to rat out his bosses for an elaborate price-fixing scheme in the high fructose corn syrup trade. Whitacre, a serial exaggerator and blabbermouth, makes for a horrible stoolie, but his enthusiasm for the work is unmatched. The dirty deeds he uncovers for a pair of FBI agents, however, are only the beginning.

Based on the book by New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald, The Informant! starts as a quirky take on whistleblower stories like The Insider and becomes something far more interesting by its conclusion. As played by Damon, Whitacre is a dorky Midwesterner who is good at his job and happy in what appears to be a very comfortable life. By his own explanation, he gets tired of the dishonesty foisted on him at work and sets down the lonely path, retaining the delusion that he’ll make it through unscathed.

Damon is at his best as Whitacre, his Bourne intensity hidden under layers of middle-aged blubber. Soderbergh, who directed him in Ocean’s 11, brings out the actor’s inner goofball, but there’s more to this portrayal, and Damon digs deep to find it. The exclamation point in the title seems to indicate the enthusiasm with which Whitacre throws himself into the spy trade, and it’s that enthusiasm that makes The Informant! fascinating. Without spoiling too much, I’ll say that Whitacre’s stated reasons for approaching the feds turn out to be less than credible. So why do it? It’s a question that hangs over the film, and one that isn’t exactly clear when the credits roll.

The ambiguity is built into Scott Burns’ excellent script, which frequently turns to Whitacre for narration, only to find his stream of consciousness carrying him far, far away from the matters at hand. The voiceover is an overused convention, and it’s fun to see it turned on its head here. Whitacre’s thoughts aren’t present to explain the plot to dense viewers; they’re there to give you an idea of how confusing and frustrating it must be to actually know this guy. He’s perpetually distracted, a kid in an adult-sized suit, and he’s always flustered when things don’t work out as planned.

Soderbergh directs an ensemble exceedingly well, and he gets the most out of a strong supporting cast. Scott Bakula and Joel McHale are great as Whitacre’s long-suffering friends in the FBI, who endure his James Bond pretensions both out of dedication and what seems to be genuine affection. The scenes between these three are among the film’s best. Also turning in funny, bewildered performances are Tony Hale and Ann Cusack, two more players caught up in the whirlwind brought on by Whitacre’s actions.

The Informant! has drawn comparisons to the work of the Coen brothers, not without reason. The film is set in southern Illinois, which doesn’t quite put it in Fargo territory, but all the characters have that same inveterate niceness that contrasts hilariously with the stressful situations they’re placed in. Soderbergh runs everything through a pale yellow filter, a constant reminder of the film’s central absurdity: that all of the shady dealings and intrigue stem from the buying and selling of corn. It’s a different kind of conspiracy for a different kind of suspense movie, and it makes The Informant! an original treat.

To comment on this story, send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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