The Informant!

In theaters.

Of all the time-wasting Internet videos out there, one of the more interesting types are the mock trailers that completely recast the tone of the subject, advertising Mary Poppins as a horror movie, for example, or The Shining as a happy family comedy, with music selections and narration dramatically changing the way we perceive the familiar scenes. In a strange way, The Informant! is like that on a grander scale. With its subject matter of corporate espionage and corruption, it might have been a thriller. That’s certainly how the main character, FBI informant Mark Whitacre, imagines the situation, likening himself to the hero of a Michael Crichton or John Grisham novel. But instead of recalling The Insider, The Informant! shifts gears, subtly pitching itself as a bone-dry comedy with idiosyncratic retro flair.

At first, I assumed that this was all director Steven Soderbergh’s doing—he seems to love playing with genre and tone—but then I changed my mind. It’s not just the direction; the odd little grace notes are already there in Scott Z. Burns’s screenplay, particularly in Whitacre’s digressive internal monologue. Why would you have the guy pondering the noses of polar bears if you expected the material to be played completely straight? But then again, maybe the ultimate responsibility for the quirkiness of The Informant! lies with the real-life Whitacre, whose exploits are eventually revealed to be so bizarre that a conventional interpretation would likely fall flat, overwhelmed by twists that defy belief. But wherever the inspiration comes from, The Informant! works. Its slippery self-presentation is part of its considerable charm.

The story is based on Kurt Eichenwald’s bestselling nonfiction book of the same name (minus the exclamation point) about the mid-’90s price-fixing scandal at agribusiness conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland. The hero, so to speak, is Whitacre, a rising young vice president at the company. When the FBI is called to investigate alleged sabotage at a lysine factory under Whitacre’s purview, he takes the opportunity to tell the agents that ADM is conspiring with competitors around the world to fix prices of lysine and other food additives. Whitacre ends up wearing a wire and recording more than two hundred hours of conversation, even going so far as to prompt incriminating statements and arrange for meetings to be held within the United States, within the FBI’s jurisdiction. Despite his considerable eccentricities, Whitacre is a model informant—maybe too perfect, in fact, at the deception the job requires, an implication that escapes his handlers for too long.

Matt Damon plays Whitacre and quickly disappears into the role. He’s done the actorly thing of gaining weight, growing an unattractive mustache, and otherwise disguising his movie-star good looks, but even aside from the physical transformation (Jason Bourne is gone), the performance is strikingly convincing. Everything about his stance, the set of his jaw, his flat Midwestern speech, and especially that goofy open grin suggests a somewhat hapless nerd in over his head. It’s easy to underestimate Damon’s Whitacre—which is, of course, the point. He somehow manages to suggest transparency while being, in retrospect, vividly opaque, for Whitacre’s buffoonery hides not only his true brilliance but also the darker shades of his personality.

The rest of the cast plays the straight man to Damon’s enigmatic clown, which makes the decision to cast comic actors in many of the roles a master stroke. Joel McHale, for example, brings the same smart deadpan to Special Agent Bob Herndon that he does to junk TV wrapup show The Soup, which, with him as host, is far funnier than it needs to be, maybe funnier than it should be. No one does frayed exasperation quite like Tony Hale of the late lamented Arrested Development, here playing Whitacre’s unappreciated, unheeded lawyer with typical—and hilarious—lack of composure.

Scott Bakula isn’t a comedian, but he is associated with broad, even kitschy TV, and it’s refreshing to see him in a comparatively tamped-down performance as Special Agent Brian Shepard. As the agent who brings in Whitacre and convinces the bureau to make its case around him, Shepard ties his fate to Whitacre more than anyone does. He prods and cajoles and grooms his informant, ultimately developing genuine respect and affection for the man, and when the whole case blows up in his long-suffering face, the effect is weirdly poignant. Between this and Bakula’s great guest turn on Chuck, I’ve become truly fond of the actor, whose shadings and charisma I had long overlooked.

The dismayed, deadpan performances are matched by the movie’s perfectly deadpan details—the gleefully old-fashioned score by Marvin Hamlisch; the ostentatiously bland, disinfected sets; those fabulously bizarre internal monologues—and with so much deadpan humor, the movie starts to feel simultaneously hyperreal and unreal. It’s eccentric, to be sure, but once you acclimate to its quietly kooky ambience, it’s hard to resist.