MOVIES: Spy games in ‘Informant!’

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Steven Soderbergh’s new dramedy, “The Informant!” is funny and delightfully full of twists, the sort of picture that constantly leaves the audience guessing about the true motivations of its characters without whiplash-inducing changes in its plot’s direction.

In many ways, it feels like the movie that Tony Gilroy’s corporate espionage comedy, “Duplicity,” wishes it had been: Mr. Soderbergh plays with structure and narrative conventions in a far subtler, less coercive and far more effective way than Mr. Gilroy did. “The Informant!” gently guides viewers along, allowing them to build trust in its characters before slowly revealing how misplaced that trust is.

Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) is a vice president at Archer Daniels Midland, the massive agribusiness firm. Mark’s having trouble getting the company’s lysine production up to profitable levels, trouble compounded by the fact that a Japanese competitor apparently has worked a mole into the company’s operation, the identity of whom is offered to the company for $10 million.

Mark takes this information to his bosses, who hand it over to the FBI (extortion is a federal offense, after all), which then descends upon the Whitacre household to tap Mark’s phones in order to catch the extortionist in the act. Concerned that the FBI will find out the scam in which the company itself is involved (the price-fixing of lysine), he pre-emptively turns informant, offering up his services in exposing the racket.

Led by FBI agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale), Mark tours the world getting his superiors and executives from other companies on tape agreeing to jack up the price of lysine. Though he’s played as something of a bumbler and a rube by Mr. Damon, Mark’s a likable guy who just seems to want to do the right thing.

But something’s not quite right. Throughout the film, audiences are exposed to Mark’s thoughts; these stream-of-consciousness discursions are both hilarious and off-putting - at one point, his train of thought leaves the station at the word toro, hops to bullfighting, goes on to toro sushi, swings through Japanese culture and settles on the fact that some Japanese vending machines dispense used panties.

By putting us inside the head of his lead, Mr. Soderbergh invites us to sympathize with Mark and overlook some of his odder actions. Standing in for the audience, agent Shepard does the same: He defends Mark to his bosses as a brave man boldly risking his family’s livelihood even after irregularities start popping up. It’s safe to say, without spoiling too much, that ignoring these peculiarities isn’t the wisest move an FBI agent has ever made.

Mr. Damon plays Mark with a joyful exuberance that turns more and more sinister as the movie progresses: Is he a heroic whistleblower, a duplicitous rube, a victim of mental illness or a straight-up sociopath? It’s tough to tell, in large part because of Mr. Damon and Mr. Soderbergh’s commitment to ambiguity.

Audiences have been conditioned to accept blindly the notion that whistleblowers and anti-corporate crusaders are white knights to be celebrated. Mr. Soderbergh’s desire to use, and subvert, that predisposition is the most intriguing aspect of “The Informant!” and helps explain why it’s one of the more fascinating movies of the year.

…1/2

TITLE: “The Informant!”

RATING: R (language)

CREDITS: Directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Scott Z. Burns

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes

WEB SITE: http://theinformant movie.warnerbros.com/

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