Witty acting, but a muddled message

Matt Damon (right) plays the central character in "The Informant!" with Scott Bakula (left) and Joel McHale as FBI agents.
Matt Damon (right) plays the central character in "The Informant!" with Scott Bakula (left) and Joel McHale as FBI agents.
Posted: September 18, 2009

Would I lie to you? Mark Whitacre, the central figure in Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!, is a guy who blows the whistle and his own horn at the same time. It's a stunt that leaves him, and us, breathless. And not always in a good way.

Based on the curious and curiouser tale of the real-life agribusiness exec (Matt Damon, bewigged and wiggy), the truth-based film about a compulsive liar wavers between corporate thriller and screwball comedy. The result is like Michael Clayton, that story of moral remorse, but played for uneasy laughs.

Soderbergh introduces Whitacre as a peddler and promoter of lysine, the amino acid used as an additive to make food taste sweeter. Two questions drive the narrative. Is there a mole relaying lysine secrets to Japanese competitors, as Whitacre suggests to his bosses at Archer Daniels Midland? Or is there a price-fixing scheme between ADM and the Japanese, as he suggests to the FBI?

Though the film's action is set in the 1990s, Soderbergh shoots it like a brightly lit 1970s television game show. Completing the effect is a Marvin Hamlisch score that echoes the bouncy theme of The Dating Game.

It's not the comically garish look and sound of the movie that make it intermittently tasty in a lysine-injected way. It's Whitacre's stream-of-consciousness narration (written by screenwriter Scott Z. Burns) that gives us a wild ride on a river overflowing its banks.

Damon expertly navigates the rapids of Whitacre's weirdness. Is this oven-stuffer with a mustache like Tom Cruise in The Firm a guy who will expose his colleagues as the Gang of Greedy? Or is he more like Harold with his purple crayon, infinitely capable of improvising new details to support his word and his world? Damon's performance is worth watching even as his character exhausts us with half-truths and whole lies.

Equally effective is Scott Bakula as an FBI special agent (and Mr. Spock look-alike) who taps the Archer Daniels Midland executive as a government witness for a federal investigation into price-fixing. As the believer who is at first bemused and then bewildered by Whitacre's mercurial testimony, Bakula is the ideal surrogate for a perplexed audience. Similarly, Whitacre's exasperated wife, played by Melanie Lynskey, is drily funny.

But does The Informant! add up to anything more than the deadpan drollery of its actors? It's hard to tell what the movie means to say. Is it that in America we have corporate liars so credible that they deceive crack government investigators? Or is it that mild liars build castles in the air and compulsive liars live in them?


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/

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