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<i>The Informant!</i> Let the Matt Damon Oscar Debate Begin!

For Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!, Matt Damon plays biochemist Mark Whitacre, a whistleblower at a food additives company. Given a picture of Damon in the role, with his prosthetic nose and mustache and the 30 pounds he gained for the role, and that bare outline of a plot, one could easily mistake the movie for The Insider, the Russell Crowe tobacco-industry drama that earned nominations for Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture in 2000. And while this movie is (mostly) a wacky comedy, don't be surprised if it replicates that nomination spread, and maybe even takes one home this time. Because while wacky, the based-on-true-events story and Damon's alternately understated and over-the-top performance may just have the humorous edge on Michael Mann's gloomy-gus exposé.

Because, you see, Whitacre is a compulsive liar who only lets the FBI in on his company's price-fixing conspiracy after they start questioning him about his report of corporate sabotage by a Japanese rival. Damon plays Whitacre as a gleeful man of science, who can go on forever about corn-derived additives like lysine, then flies into a rage when he hears about even the slightest betrayal -- even when it's completely manufactured by him. Damon's stories and rants almost make you believe that he is a legitimately good citizen, naively dragged into a plot that he wants no part of, but as he glides from one lie to the next, the audience's disbelief begins to build, and by the time he admits his first lie, you wonder whether anything he's said is true at all.

It turns out that some of it is indeed true, but as you learn the rest of the story, and get hints of Whitacre's luxurious lifestyle -- eight cars, including a Porsche and a Ferrari, and the horse stable under construction across the street -- you start to wonder what's wrong with him. Why is he destroying a life that gives him everything he wants over a few illicit cents on the dollar? Damon radiates earnestness, but his inner monologue, which veers into banalities even as his co-workers go over important information at work, starts out being funny, but gradually shows that he's not playing with a full deck. In fact, the humor of the entire situation comes to a peak midway through, then slowly descends into a sad state of affairs. Damon still manages to bring the funny, but you can tell that he's beyond hope or redemption.

The rest of the cast is equally great. Scott Bakula and Joel McHale play humorless FBI agents who grow more and more frustrated with Whitacre. Bakula is particularly good playing Whitacre's incredibly straitlaced contact, and he comes off as completely confused and betrayed when Whitacre turns out to be less than genuine. Aside from a few other small roles (Clancy Brown as a corporate attorney, Tony Hale as Whitacre's lawyer, Patton Oswalt as an FBI investigator, the Smothers Brothers as the company president and a judge) most of the rest of the cast is, if not unknown, then fairly low-profile -- perfect for the everyman characters they play who are suckered in by Whitacre. And since Damon is in nearly every scene, and is usually the focus, he does all of the heavy lifting, anyway. I've never been entirely comfortable with the drubbing Damon took in Team America, and maybe after this movie people will recognize him for the talent he is, without having to reach all the way back to Good Will Hunting for an example.

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