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TAPPED POTENTIAL

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Informant!" is an entertaining expose of corporate corruption as well as a droll sendup of business-intrigue movies. But it wouldn't stick in the memory were it not for Matt Damon's audacious, baggy-pants portrayal of corporate whistle-blower Mark Whitacre, the antihero of this reality-based farce.

Whitacre spends much of the mid-1990s wearing an FBI mike to gather evidence of price-fixing at Archer Daniels Midland, the Decatur, Ill., agribusiness giant. The role becomes a tour de force for Damon.

This underrated actor turned superstar as the buff super-agent Bourne. Here, he puts on 30 pounds, a bad hairpiece, a fake nose and diving mask-size spectacles. His face and physique, as well as his drab office clothes, come off as a costume, and that works wonders for his characterization. Damon plays Whitacre as a man who's hard to get to know because he doesn't know himself. He still thinks he's a hero after others come to see him as a hypocrite.

Damon assumes a deadpan game face that can disintegrate into hysteria or silliness, fleetingly and without warning. Director Steven Soderbergh handed Damon one clue: He wanted Whitacre to be "doughy." Damon has run with it, brilliantly, by suggesting a hidden mental mixer whipping dough in all directions.

Damon plays Whitacre as a would-be virtuoso of multitasking at a time when efficiency experts used the term to describe computers, not people. When he first starts taping his colleagues, and announces that he's entering the home office where he serves as a top executive, he could be tweeting to himself. He's a bit like Larry David in "Curb Your Enthusiasm." He can't help processing minutiae, even when he's about to embark on a perilous course of action. It's part of what makes the movie mildly frustrating.

He delivers unexpected laughs even when you want him and the moviemakers to deliver some cogent comedy-drama. At its peak, it's a crackpot character comedy. Whitacre believes ADM's board of directors will elevate him over all the other executives because he's doing the right thing by exposing company price-fixing. It's as if he's performing a manic, corporate-flunky version of the Smothers Brothers' "Mom always liked you best" routine. (Dick and Tom Smothers make guest appearances.)

Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, clarify from the start that Whitaker has been conducting a running commentary in his head on subjects as far-out as the identical coloring of certain butterflies with or without poison wings. He free-associates so wildly that his narration could be called stream-of-unconsciousness. He's got no sense of proportion and a squirrelly sense of morality.

Part of his dizzying dislocations may derive from his head-turning success: He holds a doctorate and became the youngest divisional president in ADM's history, then a corporate vice president and officer of the company. A trained biochemist, he's in charge of producing the amino acid lysine, used to increase and accelerate the growth of hogs and chickens. It doesn't take long before we begin questioning why he's spilling the beans - and corn, and lysine - to the FBI. Does he have an agenda of his own?

The technique of the "unreliable narrator" has been employed to spectacular effect in films like "The Usual Suspects" and "Fight Club." What's original about its use in "The Informant!" is that it's alternately slap-happy and dead-on metaphoric. The device puts a comic exclamation point on the action, just as these cheeky filmmakers put an exclamation point on the title of their nonfiction source book, by Kurt Eichenwald. Whitacre fixates on double things, like those nearly identical butterflies. Before long, you suspect a doubleness in his own character.

That's simultaneously the pleasure and the predicament of watching this film. You expect to be surprised, even if you can't predict the exact nature of the shocks.

In "The Informant!" Soderbergh has simply grabbed hold of a concept and seen it through, maintaining a dry attitude if not a scintillating tone. This movie lacks the bloom or inspiration of his best work, but he has succeeded in making a one-man show with a cast of hundreds. The supporting players all become deft straight men to Whitacre, led by Scott Bakula as the FBI man who is the lead agent on the case and Melanie Lynskey as Whitacre's virtuous, supportive wife.

Marvin Hamlisch's "Laugh-In"-like music, the brightly colored credits and Whitacre's crack that he should be designated "0014" because he's "twice as smart" as 007 suggest that Whitacre is living not in the 1990s, but in the fantasies he had growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. And the flat, horizontal compositions in boardrooms and offices around the world suggest the leveling outreach of corporate culture and its inability to contain a wild card like Whitacre.

The problem is, the movie feels as if it's been hermetically sealed in Whitacre's (or maybe Soderbergh's) head. The movie wants to be a thinking-man's fun ride, yet lets one or two big ironies go without an imaginative detour or even, in one case, a sideways glance. (ADM's furtherance of Big Agra is probably more damaging to consumers than price-fixing.)

Still, when the filmmakers lift whole scenes from the book and reveal the absurdity within factuality, the movie proves to be revelatory and amusing. And it's pleasurably disconcerting to be part of a game of crack the whip with a loon like Whitacre brandishing the whip.

MPAA rating: R (for language)

Running time: 1:48

Starring: Matt Damon (Mark Whitacre), Scott Bakula (FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard) and Joel McHale (FBI Special Agent Bob Herndon). A Warner Bros. release. Directed by Steven Soderbergh.

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