And Now for Something Completely Different

A director and star known for eluding typecasting break the mold once again

There are many different Matt Damons. This isn’t news. He’s one of our most skilled, versatile actors, whether playing an athletic, multi-lingual killing machine in the Bourne films, an all-American G.I. in Saving Private Ryan, or an idiot named Bob in Stuck on You.

And in Steven Soderbergh’s latest, we’re given another side of Damon: Mark Whitacre (pronounced Whittaker), a corporate climber at the huge Fortune 500 agriculture company Archer Daniels Midland, the folks who add corn products to seemingly everything we eat and drink.

A former scientist who’s become a division president at ADM, Whitacre has become involved with company numbers and profits and balance sheets. And something’s not adding up, though prices are going up. Prices, he realizes, are being illegally fixed, and the public is getting screwed. What’s a young executive to do?

We know he’s thinking about this because we can hear his thoughts, practically all of them, in a kind of constant interior babble. Stuff about foreign companies in collusion with ADM, about the metric system and how the word “litre” sounds nicer than the word “quart,” about poisonous butterflies.

Even before — early in the film — Whitacre decides to blow the whistle on his company to the FBI, we’re already wondering, “What the hell’s wrong with this guy?” By the time a couple of Feds (Scott Bakula and The Soup’s Joel McHale) convince him to wear a wire, we’re also hearing the music that’s going on in his head — and it’s very James Bondian.

There’s more to the music — this is no typical soundtrack. It’s the score to Whitacre’s mental barometer. When things are going well at work or at home, the Marvin Hamlisch score turns bright and bouncy. It’s as if Whitacre had some ’60s sitcom music blaring in his brain.

And now we’re wondering, “What the hell is going on with this movie?” What’s going on is that screenwriter Scott Z. Burns has adapted the true story of Whitacre, from Kurt Eichenwald’s straight and serious book of the same name, into a comedy. This was the idea of director Steven Soderbergh, who had already given us some whistle-blowing with Erin Brockovich.

Soderbergh, a chameleon behind the camera the way Damon is in front of it — how can the same person have made Che, Traffi c and the Ocean’s series? — has here grabbed the reins of one odd and oddly funny movie.

Damon, aided by the plumpness of 30 extra pounds, a bad wig, an unflattering, droopy mustache, and a collection of loud neckties, grandly shows off his comic chops.

He gives us a charismatic character who just can’t be pinned down. Is he really looking for justice or is he just trying to climb upward faster by ratting on his bosses? Or is he nuts? At a couple of junctures during his “spy” period, if he had a tail, he’d be wagging it frantically.

His loving wife Ginger (Australian Melanie Lynskey) supports his every move. The FBI guys trust everything he does. But he’s being asked to lead two lives, and less than a quarter of the way into the film, it’s obvious that Whitacre has plenty of trouble just dealing with one.

An inspired component is to have Whitacre’s inner thoughts start to overtake his everyday behavior. At one point it’s (comically) difficult to tell whether we’re hearing his voice or his mind. If that weren’t enough to deal with, things get, shall we say, complicated.

Circumstances lead to an array of surprises upon surprises, for the characters in the film as much as for us. There are some tonal shifts ranging from flat-out drama to frustration to total lunacy. But wherever it goes, it remains fascinating and slickly entertaining. It’s a big juicy onion of a movie, and there’s a different piece of Whitacre revealed in every peel.

Spokane Jewish Cultural Film Festival @ Gonzaga University Jepson Center

Through Feb. 5
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