September 17, 2009

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The Informant! (R)
Matt Damon plays a man with questionable hair and even more questionable judgment in The Informant!, which is kind of like what would happen if you remade the whistleblower drama The Insider as a wacky comedy filled with Coen Brothers-esque characters.

Mark Whitacre (Damon) knows something about ADM, the Big Food company for which he works. (The movie is based on real people and events with some changes — so there, as a title card tells us.) At first it appears that he knows why a certain food additive isn’t working out the way it should and the FBI is called in to investigate corporate sabotage. But once Mark is alone with agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) he spills the story of a different crime — price-fixing that he says ADM is involved with at an international level. For reasons not quite clear to Shepard and his partner Bob Herndon (Joel McHale), Mark agrees to wear a wire and build a case against ADM executives. As he tells his wife (Melanie Lynsky), with those scoundrels kicked out, ADM will need him more than ever to run the company.

Er, the corporate culture might change for you a bit, the U.S. Attorney attempts to explain to a seemingly clueless Mark.

Just as the Coen Brothers’ Burn Notice was kind of a Hitchcock movie populated by characters with Three Stooges brains, The Informant! feels like a serious corporate intrigue populated by Cohen oddballs. At the end of Burn Notice, an intelligence agent played by J.K. Simmons says something to the effect of “I’m not sure what happened and I don’t know what we did but let’s not do it again.” That’s kind of how things unfold here. How clueless is Mark really? What’s really going on? These are questions that you ask yourself throughout the movie, with answers that change as the twisty story unfolds.

Particularly the question of who Mark is. It’s only a mild SPOILER ALERT to say that you start off thinking he’s an honest if dopey guy and then you think he’s possibly delusional and then possibly some kind of sociopathic and then perhaps just a really dopey guy. Damon does a good job of playing him right on the line so that any of these things could be true.

And, as in Burn Notice, the surrounding characters are straight men, goofballs and occasionally villains in a way that is entertaining even if it doesn’t end up painting the story with strong colors. On the Soderbergh scale of whimsy, running from Ocean’s Thirteen to solemn Che territory, The Informant! comfortably, charmingly slides toward the George Clooney end of the scale. B

Rated R for language. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Scott Z. Burns (from a book by Kurt Eichenwald), The Informant! is an hour and 48 minutes long and opens Friday, Sept. 18. It is distributed by Warner Bros.