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By Jessica Baxter | September 18, 2009

Prolific and varied best describes Steven Soderbergh’s career. “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” “Out of Sight” and “The Limey” are all compelling character pieces. “Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich” are preachy Oscar-pandering (but hey, it worked) and the “Oceans” movies are gimmicky commercial fare. “The Informant!” falls in line with his character-driven early work. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s definitely the Soder-side I prefer.

Matt Damon proves once again that he was the more talented of the Beantown Twins. He’s virtually unrecognizable in the role of whistle blower, Mark Whitacre, and it’s not because he “bravely” gained weight for the part (though I’m sure the Academy is salivating at gesture). You can still recognize the matinee idol underneath the chub, but he’s pulling off something that few of his contemporaries are capable of. He buries the celebrity persona deep inside the character, in this case, the mind of a manic-depressive mid-western geek who fancies himself a secret agent.

“The Informant!” is the true-ish story of a scientist-turned-executive working for an agribusiness firm that makes corn additives for foods. Whitacre becomes involved with the FBI when he reveals that his company has been involved in price-fixing. He is suspiciously cooperative when they ask him to wear a wire. Before long, Whitacre’s enthusiasm takes over. He fancies himself a character in a John Grisham novel. The spy-music score echoes the fantasies that Whitacre weaves in his head. Eventually, we learn that his self-delusion goes deeper than anyone had ever imagined.

I love an unreliable narrator, and Mark Whitacre’s voiceover is about as unreliable as they come, thus eliminating the usual trappings, such as tedious over-exposition. His narration is more stream-of-consciousness than informational. Most of the time, his thoughts are only loosely connected to what’s happening around him. His brain spouts factoids about animals and comes up with ideas for TV shows when he’s in the middle of a conversation. So when he repeatedly tells the FBI agents “There’s something I haven’t told you guys,” the revelations are as much a surprise to the audience as they are to the other characters. This keeps things interesting in what could have easily been a dry corporate corruption story. There is a definite Coen Brothers-esque lightness to the whole thing.

The supporting cast is also excellent. It’s refreshing to see Melanie Lynskey returning to the meatier fare that launched her career. Scott Bakula, Joel McHale and Thomas F. Wilson (Biff!) also turn in terrific performances. Where the film suffers is in the editing. The story feels a bit repetitive at times and could have been tightened up. The retro titles and music are an interesting but not entirely appropriate choice for a film that begins in 1992. Many of the jokes work, but occasionally, they are just a little too cutesy for their own good. For the most part, however, “The Informant!” earns the charisma that the title’s exclamation point implies.

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