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Corn Schmucking

“The Informant!” looks at big agri-business through an unusual hero.

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This isn't the first movie to suggest that something as wholesome as corn could be used for evil (see the recent documentaries “King Corn” and “Food Inc.”). But among the corporate arrogance ferreted out by those other films, “The Informant!” is the first to find a protagonist as unrestrained as Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), an agri-business executive who blows the whistle on price fixing at the powerhouse company Archer Daniels Midland.

Whitacre is a biochemist for ADC in the '90s. He helps the company develop and promote corn-derived lysine, a wonder-molecule that, among many other things, gets chickens to grow insanely fast. Part of Whitacre's job includes high-level conferences with international competitors for the purposes of price fixing. Suspecting the company is about to hang him out to dry with snooping FBI agents, Whitacre decides to turn informant, reporting ADM's price-fixing schemes and agreeing to wear a wire. If true, Whitacre's accusations could unravel the biggest price-fixing crime ever uncovered in America, but the movie shows us he isn't the most reliable source, to say the least.

Damon is spellbinding in the role of an out-of-shape but smug corn playa' in the heartland, a sweater-clad collector of European sports cars who regales his son with the powerful properties of food chemicals while worrying about whether he should turn in his bosses. Whitacre's thoughts break into the movie frequently and unexpectedly, probing with the same chipper attitude topics both germane and irrelevant as he ponders breakfast (“You know what's in that orange juice you drink every morning? Corn.”), the German language (“One German word I really like is ‘kugelschreiber.’ … All those syllables, just for ‘pen.’”), and the derelictions of other industries (“You think if the big auto companies wanted to make a car that gets 100 miles to the gallon they couldn't?”).

The movie attempts to show that Whitacre isn't the only heedless soul distracted by all that money growing out there in the heartland. He fiddles with his bureau-provided  recording equipment while associates chat right next to him, and even tells friends and co-workers about his undercover work (“I'm double-o-fourteen,” he tells his handyman, “because I'm twice as good as double-o-seven”). But nobody notices, too busy scheming to consider someone is conspiring to ruin their economy.

As embodied by Damon, who reportedly gained about 30 pounds for the role, Whitacre's odd mixture of insouciance and cynicism makes him an amusing character and a valuable source for FBI agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale), who take him for the selfless, morally compelled whistleblower he makes himself out to be. Hints about the real man behind this faAade come gradually but early, usually in the form of the mendacious skill he employs to confuse everyone. After turning informant, Whitacre is first at the office to vehemently insist they stop cooperating with the FBI.

Whitacre thinks himself kin to the hero in “The Firm,” reveling in his undercover work and dreaming of the day when he can finally take over ADM. But he becomes so misguided by egomania, the FBI stops investigating the company so it can concentrate on him. Whitacre, it turns out, is an inveterate liar. Shepard's boss at the FBI, for one, wants to know why a guy who makes $350,000 a year is throwing it all away — a mystery not lost on the film.

“The Informant!” was directed by Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean's Eleven”), from a screenplay by Scott Burns, adapting a nonfiction book by journalist Kurt Eichenwald. Soderbergh, who has stumbled recently with starch and bloated personal projects such as “Che” and “The Girlfriend Experience,” finds the right tone this time — not too serious, not too goofy, sympathetic to none of the characters while skeptical of them all — and his movie is snappy and difficult to label as a result.

Whitacre eventually must tell his bosses (Rick Overton and Tom Papa) about his involvement with the FBI (and, humorously, that he's sorry). When he's forced out of corn so is the film, which smartly keeps its focus on Whitacre rather than trying to turn him into an overt statement about agri-business or corporate malfeasance. Ultimately about one man, “The Informant!” remains an effective rumination on contemporary capitalism and its air of glib indifference — to honesty, the rule of law, and even sanity. (R) 148 min. HHHHH S

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