The Informant!

Everything about Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!” suggests a level of playfulness that the director hasn’t indulged in since “Ocean’s Eleven.” The exclamation point in the title; the kitschy musical score by Marvin Hamlisch (who hasn’t composed for a film in 13 years); the retro-cheesy fonts in the credits; the casting of comedians and other unlikely performers in key roles — this is a lark for Soderbergh.

It’s a jaunty, goofy trip for the audience, too, a smart comedy about a dumb guy whose peculiarities become more pronounced — and start to make more sense — as time goes on. Does the movie mock him a little bit, like a rube in a Coen brothers movie? Yeah, maybe. “The Informant!” may not be very humane, ultimately, but its attitude seems to be that who needs humane when you’ve got funny? I agree, up to a point.

The guy is Mark Whitacre, played by Matt Damon, who seems to have modeled his performance on a mixture of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ned Flanders. He’s thickset, unflatteringly coiffed, and stricken with an awful mustache, as often happened to men in the Midwest in the early 1990s, which is where and when the film is set. Mark is a biochemist-turned-vice-president at the agricultural conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland, where he oversees the production of the mysterious crop-derived things that wind up in almost all food products: dextrose, sorbitol, lysine, etc. Where do those things come from? They come from A.D.M.

A.D.M. is a real company, and Mark Whitacre is a real guy, and this stuff really happened, more or less. (The film is adapted from Kurt Eichenwald’s nonfiction book.) The trouble begins when the FBI is brought in to help with an extortion plot against A.D.M. from a Japanese competitor. In his conversations with Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula, in a Sam Donaldson haircut), Mark reveals that there’s something else going on: A.D.M. is engaged in illegal price-fixing, and Mark wants to blow the whistle. Ever the optimist, Mark hopes he will remain in good standing at the company even after he brings down its top executives.

That is the nature of Mark: blissfully naive, eternally trusting, and completely clueless. His wife’s (Melanie Lynskey) nickname for him is Corky. When he’s not speaking, he’s nattering on in an endless internal monologue about all manner of random subjects, from polar bears to the correct pronunciation of “Porsche.” When he talks, he cannot shut up. He just likes to be heard.

This isn’t the kind of guy you want to trust with a major undercover operation, but he’s the FBI’s only source on the price-fixing, so he’s fitted with a microphone and a tape recorder and urged to get the honchos on tape making incriminating remarks. There is much humor in Mark’s overeagerness to do this correctly, as well as in his anxiety over being so deeply involved in something so complicated. Agent Shepard and his partner, Herndon (Joel McHale), are often stunned by how naive Mark is, yet humbled by his inherent honesty and decency.

If you aren’t familiar with the news story that inspired the film, I won’t ruin it for you. I’ll just say that what begins as a predictable comedy about corporate malfeasance turns into something else entirely, with the fascinatingly bizarre Mark Whitacre at the center. Damon’s glee at being able to cut loose and play a truly unusual character is self-evident, and right in line with Soderbergh’s merry attitude. All around him in roles large and small are interesting people: Bakula, McHale, Ann Cusack (John and Joan’s sister), Tony Hale, the Smothers Brothers (but not together), and stand-up comedians Patton Oswalt, Andrew Daly, Bob Zany, Allan Havey, Tom Wilson, and Paul F. Tompkins, to name just a few. You get the feeling the whole movie is a put-on, right down to the casting. (Seriously, what kind of sick joker books the Smothers Brothers, then separates them?)

It is that jokey standoffishness that keeps the film from having a relatable, emotional center. Even though the characters are based on real people, they seem like cartoons — or, more accurately, Mark seems like a cartoon; everyone else seems like a cipher interacting with a cartoon. But he’s a funny ‘toon, and Soderbergh’s light, buoyant touch makes the film worth listening in on.

B+ (1 hr., 48 min.; R, scattered F-words and vulgarity; otherwise PG.)