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MOVIE REVIEW

The Informant!

The nutty ‘Informant!’: Damon plays delusional hero for laughs

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / September 18, 2009

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‘The Informant!’’ feels like Steven Soderbergh was still high on the fumes of the “Ocean’s Eleven’’ movies when he made it. It’s bright and perky, with a naggingly effervescent score by Marvin Hamlisch that channels late ’60s game shows and never shuts up, even when you want it to. Soderbergh’s pushing the limits of our indulgence here, spinning a story of white-collar greed and bipolar delusions into intentionally shallow pop farce. The movie’s fun to watch, but you can tell it was a lot more fun to make, and that’s a problem. The party stays up on the screen; down here, it’s been over for a year.

That the movie works as well as it does is due to Matt Damon, who plays the real-life corporate whistle-blower Mark Whitacre with comic verve and a really bad head of hair. Starting in the early 1990s, Whitacre, the youngest divisional president in the history of agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, worked with the FBI to document a huge price-fixing scheme in which ADM and its rivals controlled the market for lysine, an essential amino acid.

“The Informant!’’ - even the title surges with peppy irony - is based on a book by former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald, which made the most of Whitacre’s dysfunctions. Unknown to the agency, their insider had dirty hands himself and was more than a little unhinged. Led by Special Agent Brian Shepard (a wonderfully woe-faced Scott Bakula), the Feds saw Whitacre as their ace in the hole. In Whitacre’s own mind, he was “Secret Agent 0014, ’cause I’m twice as smart as 007.’’ The comedy - the movie’s entire point, really - is in that yawning gulf between the FBI’s expectations and their mole’s nuttiness. It’s like you’re getting two Russell Crowe movies for the price of one: “The Insider’’ and “A Beautiful Mind.’’

Whitacre’s mind is anything but beautiful. As voiced by Damon in chatty internal monologues that only slowly reveal their disconnect, the whistle-blower’s mental landscape is both grandiose and banal. A typical ramble: “Polar bears cover their noses when waiting for seals to surface. How do they know their noses are black? That seems like a lot of thinking for bears.’’ This while he’s supposed to be absorbing instructions from the FBI agents.

Later, wearing a wire, Whitacre hilariously narrates his morning walk into ADM’s headquarters, greeting co-workers by full name and occupation. He’s writing the espionage movie that’s already in his head, and he couldn’t be more delighted. It’s at moments like this that you appreciate Damon’s happy knack for character comedy: the straighter he plays it, the funnier he is. Doughy and enthusiastic, his ratty little moustache fooling no one, the star is a treat, especially in the climactic scenes when Whitacre starts literally coming apart at the follicles.

A few too many scenes in “The Informant!’’ are business meetings in which drab executives wearing drab neckties drone about drab subjects. (The baby-voiced Melanie Lynskey is so good in her scenes as the hero’s wife - the lone person in the movie with a conscience - that we want much more of her.) Soderbergh thinks it’s a giggle that such massive corporate crimes could be committed by small, tacky men, but he isn’t really interested in them. He wants to marvel at Whitacre, whose upbeat cluelessness grows more desperate as the walls close in.

The movie doesn’t spell it out but strongly implies that this manic-depressive self-regard - the gnawing need to be a Master of the Universe - is what got Whitacre and Archer Daniels Midland into trouble, what got Bernie Madoff and AIG and Lehman Brothers into trouble, what gets our whole go-go economy into trouble, over and over again. It’d be a tragedy if it weren’t so richly absurd, but it would also make for better comedy if the joke weren’t on us. “The Informant!’’ laughs so long and hard that it forgets to check whether we’re laughing along.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

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THE INFORMANT! Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Written by: Scott Z. Burns, based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald

Starring: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Melanie Lynskey

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 108 minutes

Rated: R (language)

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