So this is what Matt Damon has been keeping bottled up during all those taciturn hours playing Jason Bourne. In Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!, Damon plays--and plays very, very well--a character in every way the opposite of his efficient, amnesiac superspy: a babbling bumbler who goes undercover for the FBI to gather information against his own employer but winds up exposing mostly himself. Forget Soderbergh's earlier Erin Brockovich; this is a portrait of the whistleblower as pipsqueak.
A biochemist by training, Mark Whitacre (Damon) has ascended to the upper echelons of agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM)--and, in the process, gotten in well over his head. When a project he's overseeing (which involves synthesizing lysine for use in corn sweeteners) begins falling behind, he tells his superiors that he's received phone calls from a competitor informing him that an internal mole is undermining the program. The truth? A stall? It's not entirely clear, but the corporate brass decide to bring in the FBI, which is not at all what Whitacre had had in mind. Worried that the Bureau might stumble upon ADM's nasty habit of price-fixing, Whitacre promptly spills the beans on his bosses, which is not at all what they'd had in mind. Soon enough, he's wearing a wire for the feds and, in his mind, likening his undercover antics to those of Tom Cruise in The Firm.
Indeed, much of the drama in The Informant! takes place in Whitacre's mind and, as the film progresses, the divergences between his internal reality and the external one become more and more evident. It's not that he's delusional, at least not in the hallucinatory sense; it's that he's exceptionally good at self-justification, and at distracting himself from his own misdemeanors. He lacks both intellectual and moral focus, retreating constantly into an internal monologue of ADD discursions--on the best place to buy neckties, the pronunciation of "Porsche," and, most hilariously, the problems posed by the polar bear's black nose. Whitacre's mind is, as the song goes, like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel. I haven't had this much fun watching an actor talk to himself since, well, the last two or three Robert Downey Jr. movies.
The script is based on Kurt Eichenwald's nonfiction book The Informant--the film adds the exclamation point merely to denote comedy, not a musical, though one wonders what possibilities the latter genre might have opened up. While the events portrayed took place in the early-to-mid-1990s, Soderbergh has given the film a deliberately 1970s vibe, with funky opening titles and a Marvin Hamlisch score--his first in 13 years--that's a dizzy, inventive triumph, a throwback pastiche of whistling, tubas, and kazoos.
But beyond its aesthetics, The Informant! has a 1970s brand of humor, too: wry, not riotous; content to find its laughs in the context of the story; gliding on a wave of chuckles rather than striving desperately for hilarity. It may be the funniest movie in five years without (as best I can recall) a single gag related to bodily functions. It resembles in some ways last year's Burn After Reading, another comedy out of step with prevailing conventions. But where the Coens' film went dark, Soderbergh's opts for light. Even as his tapestry of fibs is unraveling, the upbeat Whitacre enthuses, "There are so many really nice people in the world."
Sharp supporting performances are turned in by Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey, Tony Hale, Tom Papa, and others. There are even small roles for Tom and Dick Smothers--another period nod. And Soderbergh knits it all together with quiet grace, offering what is probably his most artfully realized film since at least 2001's Ocean's Eleven (though I confess I have not yet made it through the dozen reels of Che).
It's Damon's film, though, and he occupies his equivocating antihero utterly, capturing the Walter Mittyish self-delusion, the desperate desire to please, and the bottomless conviction that, whatever his transgressions, he's still one of the good guys. In the end it's really not true, but he may have you believing it with him all the same.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.