‘The Informant!’

You’ve gotta love a guy who dubs himself "Agent 0014 — because I’m twice as smart as James Bond."

Ah, but can you believe him?

That’s the question when it comes to "The Informant!" and its title character.

The highest-ranking whistle-blower in the all-American annals of corporate crime, Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), vice president of an agribusiness giant, helped the FBI get the goods on colleagues engaged in an international price-fixing conspiracy — at the same time he was embezzling millions of dollars from the very same company.

Clearly, Mr. Clean has dirty hands.

And while "The Informant!" has fun with that convenient contradiction, it never quite capitalizes on the absurdity of the situation as it should.

But it tries — oh my, how it tries.

True to its punctuation-accented title, "The Informant!" wants desperately to be clever.

It succeeds — up to a point. (An exclamation point, to be precise.)

But it’s a bit too self-consciously arch and stylized to really get in there and draw some blood.

Then again, Mark Whitacre’s too nice a guy for that sort of thing anyway.

A biochemist by training, he’s a corporate Boy Scout, a golly-gee Midwesterner who retains his boyish earnestness despite a job that requires extensive international travel.

As a vice president for agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland (where "corn goes in one end and profit comes out the other"), Whitacre and his family have lived around the world.

But they seem perfectly at home in Decatur, Ill., where Mark’s busy climbing the corporate ladder — until he discovers a corporate mole who’s been mucking up the manufacturing of a certain, very profitable, food additive.

Mark reports that the mole wants $10 million to stop. His ADM bosses, in turn, call the FBI rather than authorize the payoff.

The FBI’s agents on the case (Scott Bakula, Joel McHale) decide to tap Mark’s phone in hopes of collecting some evidence — and, in the process, discover an astoundingly cooperative straight-arrow who’s more than willing to assist them.

Especially when Mark reveals an even bigger bombshell to investigate: an international price-fixing conspiracy involving ADM and its overseas competitors.

Yes, it’s an outrageous case of corporate corruption — and Mark’s just the guy to help the FBI crack it.

Especially when he gets to play undercover operative, wearing a wire to top-secret gatherings to gather recorded evidence against his colleagues. Besides, it’s a great chance for Mark to tool around in his collection of high-priced foreign sports cars. He’s playing a spy, so why shouldn’t he look like one?

Most movies about corporate corruption and courageous whistle-blowers are high-minded and deadly serious. (See this week’s "Deja View" for a few examples.)

"Informant!" director Steven Soderbergh even made one of them: "Erin Brockovich."

Like that 2000 Oscar-winner, "The Informant!" takes its cue from its title character — which means that the movie often seems as off-kilter as the guy it’s about.

Although it’s set in the ’90s, "The Informant!" feels as though it’s trapped in an earlier era. Maybe it’s the Midwest setting — or maybe it’s the twinkly Marvin Hamlisch musical score, which sounds as though he’s recycled it from a glossy old-Hollywood comedy.

Speaking of the Midwest setting, Soderbergh (who as usual serves as his own cinematographer, working under the alias Peter Andrews) maintains a deliberately low-key, realistic visual style — one that contrasts effectively with his do-gooder protagonist’s increasingly outlandish delusions.

In adapting ex-New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald’s nonfiction book "The Informant," screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who also scripted Damon’s "The Bourne Ultimatum") adds a voice-over narration in which Mark reveals his inner, and sometimes out-there, musings. Collectively, they give "The Informant!" a droll undercurrent that underlines the movie’s wink-and-nudge treatment of its sobering subject matter.

To reinforce the quietly amusing approach, Soderbergh casts comedians — lots of ’em — in various roles, banking on their ability to give even the most straightforward scenes a sly twist. (Even those old showroom stalwarts Tom and Dick Smothers turn up in cameo roles.)

Not surprisingly, however, "The Informant!" showcases another nervy, nimble performance from Damon. In his fifth movie with Soderbergh (following the "Ocean’s" trilogy and "Che: Part Two"), Damon once again demonstrates his welcome ability to transform an outwardly bland character with an inner life so colorful and exciting it’s no wonder he wants it to be true.

And, in Mark Whitacre’s mind, it is. No matter what he does — or what he’s done — Mark Whitacre believes he’s the good guy.

As "The Informant!" reminds us, however, believing it doesn’t always mean it’s true.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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