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White-collar comedy 

Damon and Soderbergh find comedy in price-fixing scandal.

'THE INFORMANT': Matt Damon stars.
  • 'THE INFORMANT': Matt Damon stars.

The camera during the opening credits of “The Informant!” dwells lovingly on images of reel-to-reel tapes spooling and unspooling, to the rising swell of a lounge-style orchestra. Taken together, they seem to date the movie circa 1971. The aesthetic of FBI offices and haircuts notwithstanding, it turns out the story unfolds in the early 1990s, when an executive named Mark Whitacre really did turn state's evidence against Archer Daniels Midland for a lysine price-fixing scheme that resulted in $100 million in fines and some prison sentences. It was a monster case, involving billions of dollars and ingredients that, as the corn-obsessed chemist Whitacre (Matt Damon) muses, are in just about everything we eat. That a whistleblower as ultimately damaged as Whitacre was the linchpin for the government's case just goes to show how fickle history and justice can be, as fragile as spinning tape.

Even if you're the sort who gets off on white-collar crime comeuppance, it takes a whole lot of mustachioed Matt Damon to propel a story about an international conspiracy to fix the price of food-grade amino acids. How director Steven Soderbergh saw a dark comedy in journalist Kurt Eichenwald's account of the ADM case isn't hard to discern; that he turned it into a major end-of-summer release is damn impressive. Really, now. This isn't “The Firm,” which Whitacre watches, rapt: There's no body count to remind you of the evils of corporate America. Instead, there's featureless downstate Illinois, lots of conversations between old white guys in suits and grandpa glasses, and plea bargain negotiations at long wooden tables. Nothing, alas, explodes.

But Damon here is strong enough to hang a movie on, with the kind of performance that wins Golden Globes and barely loses Oscars. You could make a list of five or six guys, max, who can morph so convincingly from a hyperkinetic “Bourne” action star to a paunchy, bespectacled briefcase-jockey. He serves up just enough pathos while managing to be genuinely funny, never more so than his first day wearing a wire, greeting each person he encounters by name and title — easier for the G-Men to sort later. Marvin Hamlisch's score is one of the best for a comedy in recent memory, with lots of chipper woodwinds to color the Looney Tunes monologues that flow through Whitacre's mind like sewage from a busted pipe.

As he professes his old-fashioned notions of right and wrong to the FBI agent Brian Shepard (a straight-laced Scott Bakula, showing his face on the big screen for the first time in six years), it becomes clear that Whitacre is either a Boy Scout, a space cadet or a time bomb. As that answer comes into focus, any cop or journalist who has worked with a source on an investigation will cringe: You recognize the impotent despair that comes with realizing just how disturbed some people must be if they want to talk with the likes of you.

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