The Informant! Matt Damon's Weighty Comedy

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Matt Damon in Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!

Matt Damon doesn't usually hide, and why should he? His sunny good looks and go-getter smile made him a star. In 1998, when Damon was 27, his breakthrough movie Good Will Hunting snagged him an Academy Award for co-authoring the best original screenplay and an Oscar nomination for Best Actor — a rare double feat that Orson Welles had achieved at 26 with Citizen Kane. Damon didn't move into the heavyweight auteur division; instead, he carved out a solid career as an actor, smartly mixing provocative indie films like Dogma and Gerry into a regimen of blockbuster trilogies (Bourne, Ocean's) and high-profile dramas (The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Departed).

Yet in Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!, Damon does a De Niro: packing on 30-40 pounds of high-fructose flab to incarnate a character you'd never connect with him. Damon's Mark Whitacre is a paunchy, middle-aged, bespectacled, married, harried, white-collar guy — the sort of role that makes Hollywood casting agents automatically say, "Of course! William H. Macy!" That critics are giving Damon high marks for his work here is in part their welcoming of a movie star to the ranks of character actors, but also because he instantly slips into the role and takes it over, because he's so plausible and comfortable playing an ordinary fellow. And felon, but never mind that till you see the movie.

In the early '90s, Whitacre is president of the bio-chemicals division of the agro-giant Archer Daniels Midland. When the FBI launches an investigation into possible corporate espionage at ADM, Whitacre volunteers the information that his bosses are colluding with other companies in fixing the price of the amino-acid lysine, used to make the polyunsatured corn oil in so many food-related products. "Basically, everyone is a victim of corporate crime before they finish breakfast," Whitacre tells an FBI agent (Scott Bakula), who says, "That's not a business meeting, that's a crime scene." Whitacre would become the highest-ranking businessman ever to blow the whistle on his own company, and ADM eventually paid $500 million in penalties.

Didn't they do this story a decade ago and call it The Insider? Kind of. But Soderbergh (Damon's director on the Ocean's capers) and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who also worked on Damon's The Bourne Ultimatum) wanted The Informant! to go somewhere else — down the rabbit hole of Whitacre's mystifying mind. As Damon embodies him, he seems the sunniest symbol of corporate America and middle America: smart, pleasant, undemonstrative, with a supportive wife (Melanie Lynskey) and two kids. But we get the earliest glimpses of Mark's gift for fooling people, and perhaps himself, in the movie's voiceover, in which Mark wanders blithely into logical cul-de-sacs and exotic trivia: In Japan, he notes, there are vending machine where men buy the used undergarments of schoolgirls. What does that say about the Japanese? Or about Mark, for fixating on it?

The whole movie is Mark's brainscan. It's shot and acted in a bland style that, you only eventually realize, is deeply askew, and darkly, corrosively satirical. The measured voices and pastel palettte — every location, whether an ADM office, a local restaurant or Whitacre's home, has the impersonal cheeriness of motel-room decor — are reminiscent of some '70s game show produced by Chuck Barris, complete with a perky score (by Marvin Hamlisch). Then Whitacre's story vortexes into deeper chicanery, and possible derangement; and The Informant! reveals itself as a cousin to the George Clooney movie, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which posited Barris as an assassin in the employ of the CIA. The key to The Informant!'s subversive agenda is in that exclamation point: it points you to responding by saying, "Ha!" or Huh?"

"Huh?", as in: What game, exactly, is Whitacre playing? Whose side is he on? How much of what he, or the film, says is true? Those questions, and the complexity of what may pass an answers, juice up the entertainment value of The Informant! The movie begins with a printed statement that, while much of the action is fact-based, certain characters and situations have been massaged for dramatic effect. This warning ends with a cheeky "So there," as if the filmmakers are sticking their tongue out at the gullibility of the ADM execs, the FBI agents, possibly Whitacre and, for sure, the audience.

That's not a recipe for box-office success. The Informant!'s lunacy is too deadpan, and its denouement too drawn out, to appeal to those who liked the Bourne movies. But it's still a salutary achievement. Hollywood is an industry that mostly ignores workplace life and the impact of corporations on what we eat and how we live. And on the rare occasions when it touches on these issues, it turns them into morality plays with easily recognizable heroes and villains (as Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich did). The Informant! says that people who do good or ill have complex motives for their actions, and that not everyone is knowable, instantly or ever.

I'll bet that's just what drew Damon to the role. He wants audiences to leave the movie wondering who this Mark Whitacre is. Any of Hollywood's rare thoughtful films is an education for viewers. And when they see The Informant!, their response should be not a "Huh?" but a muted "Aha."