‘The Informant!’: Liars, Inc., By Kurt Loder

Matt Damon's laugh trek.

It’s October of 1992, and Mark Whitacre ([movieperson id="386591"]Matt Damon[/movieperson]), a hotshot executive at Archer Daniels Midland, the giant agricultural conglomerate, is going about his job. He has a full plate at the moment — some mysterious virus is screwing up the company’s corn-syrup operation. Did you know there’s corn syrup in everything — orange juice, maple syrup? It’s true.

So Mark has a lot on his mind. Or at least that part of his mind that’s not buzzing with a whole other swarm of odd fixations. Like … sushi. “I wonder who went first on that one?” Mark wonders. “The guy without the grill?” There’s also the threat of poison-winged butterflies. And … polar bears! Do you realize that polar bears would be impossible to spot in their snowy Arctic habitat if it weren’t for their black noses? It’s true. Do you think a polar bear ever peered at his reflection in the water surrounding his ice floe and thought, “Without that nose, I’d be invisible”? Maybe. On the other hand, as Mark concludes, “That’s a lot of thinking for a bear.”

Steven Soderbergh’s droll new comedy, “The Informant!,” tells a corporate-whistleblower story that’s so whacked-out, there seems no way it could be true. But it is. Just as his ADM employers are getting concerned about the corn-syrup virus, Mark comes to them with a new problem: He’s been contacted about a mole in the company — a bad guy, could be blowing trade secrets, who knows what else? The source of this information will identify the traitor in exchange for a big cash payoff, to be deposited in numbered overseas bank accounts. Whitacre helpfully says he will handle the transaction.

Then the FBI becomes involved. Then, when the Bureau sends one of its agents, broody Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula), to talk to Whitacre about this bribery attempt, Whitacre, out of nowhere, volunteers to become a mole himself for the FBI! To expose ADM’s international price-fixing schemes! If the company’s not stopped, Mark says … well, the price of soda pop could rise five cents a bottle. It’s true! Soon Mark is packing a little Nagra recorder on his business trips to Paris, Tokyo, Mexico City, and taping his colleagues saying the most unseemly things. (“The customer is our enemy,” one exec observes. “The competitor is our friend.”)

Great stuff. And the Justice Department is becoming very interested. But Mark Whitacre is … well, it’s not just the palatial spread he calls home, or even the fact that he owns eight cars. There’s something else. So the Bureau gives Mark a lie-detector test — which he flunks resoundingly. Okay, he says — I’ll come clean. The mole, the bribe? I made that up. The Bureau guys are floored. But their moments of drop-jawed amazement are only beginning. Because Mark Whitacre, it turns out, is one of the most relentlessly inventive liars in the history of corporate cupidity.

The movie is based on a book by former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald, and Scott Z. Burns has turned it into a sleek, punchy script. You might think a business-based story would have to be dry in spots; but as low-key as it is, the picture is consistently funny, and it grows more and more hilarious as it goes along. Scott Bakula, his imposing Easter Island face sculpted with crags of deep concern, is the perfect emblem of the FBI’s bumbling desperation to keep up with Whitacre’s ever-unfolding machinations. Melanie Lynskey brings a cherubic sweetness to the role of Mark’s puzzlingly devoted wife, Ginger. And there are also a number of noted comedians salted in among the cast (among them Tom and Dick Smothers), all doing straight time for Steven.

But the movie is a totally-owned comic coup for Matt Damon, demonstrating here, in ways that aren’t always obvious in his action films, what a gifted performer he is. He plays Whitacre — with his serious glasses and stolid mustache — as a complete nutcase; but he also makes us see how easy it is for the man to convince everyone else in the story of his staunch sincerity. The guy is a total conundrum (even to himself, it eventually becomes clear). Who is he really? And how many of him are there? Eavesdropping on his internal chaos at one point, we hear him musing about television, thinking, “There should be a show where a guy calls home — and he’s there.”

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s reviews of “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,” “Whiteout,” “Jennifer’s Body” and “The Burning Plain,” also in theaters this week.

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Informant!”

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