TORONTO -

John Grisham

, meet

Jerry Lewis

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For readers of The Informant - Kurt Eichenwald's ace nonfiction thriller about an agribusiness whistleblower - Steven Soderbergh's adaptation is going to come as quite a shock.

With Matt Damon as the real-life Archer Daniels Midland spy guy Mark Whitacre, The Informant! (yes, that exclamation point is a tip-off) turns the Grisham-esque read into an antic screwball farce, replete with stand-up comics, kitschy graphics, and a zippy retro score from composer Marvin Hamlisch.

"The book is terrific, and it does read like a John Grisham novel," says Damon, who donned mustache, hairpiece, and about 30 pounds for the role. "Literally, you can't stop reading it, and your jaw is just on the floor because it's all true."

But, says Damon, Soderbergh, "upon further reflection," decided that to play the book straight just wasn't going to work.

"You know, he thought [about] The Insider and thought, it's already been done, and it's been done really well. There's no point in making a movie that's already been made."

So the director - a good friend of Damon's, and a frequent collaborator (Ocean's Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen, and Che: Part II) - asked screenwriter Scott Z. Burns to change direction.

"It was a really quick conversation," Damon says. "Scott just went, 'Yep, I understand exactly what you're saying,' turned around, took off, and came back and delivered this script which was fantastically original. . . . And then we went and shot it."

In the film, which opened Friday and also stars Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, and Melanie Lynskey, Damon's Whitacre uncovers a global price-fixing scheme and goes to the feds. He agrees to wear a wire to help the FBI, and starts imagining himself a super spy. He calls himself 0014, because he's "twice as smart as 007."

"He really said that," Damon reports. "Those are all things that Whitacre actually said."

The actor, who was in Toronto for The Informant!'s film-festival premiere last weekend, said that his weight gain for the part wasn't that big a deal. This was not Raging Bull.

"It wasn't a very organized plan, you know, like when De Niro did it - I think he went to a fat farm. I just wrote Steven an e-mail a couple of months before we started shooting, and asked him what he was looking for, physically. What should this guy look like?

"And he wrote back one word: doughy.

"Steven felt that he shouldn't have any edges - anywhere. So even after I put on the weight, the little things we did - well, we did the mustache, we did a wig, some plumpers in my cheeks, and then they made a prosthetic nose that basically just went on the tip of my nose. . . . There was just no edge to it at all. There was nothing sharp about anything about the guy.

"Which, for me, was great because it meant basically I could just eat the way I ate in college. The way none of us as adults really allow ourselves to eat. . . .

"Occasionally, I'll let myself have a bag of Doritos. But certainly not every day all day, which was kind of how I was eating on The Informant! . . .

"I was 37 when we shot this," says Damon, who turns 39 in a couple of weeks. "Unfortunately, it was much easier than I wanted it to be to put on 30 or so pounds. It came right on, which was a bit disturbing."

Damon and his wife, Argentine-born Luciana Barroso, have just rented an apartment in New York. They'll be living there with their kids for the next few months while he goes to work on The Adjustment Bureau, an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story, "Adjustment Team," about a guy who discovers that his world is being controlled by strange, guardian-like figures. Emily Blunt is in the film, being directed by George Nolfi.

"George wrote the last Bourne movie, he wrote Ocean's Twelve, and it's his directing debut," says Damon. "When Philip K. Dick is done right, when it's Minority Report or Total Recall, it's absolutely brilliant.

"This one, George went pretty far afield. It's a very original adaptation. But tonally it's definitely different from anything I've ever done."

And speaking of the Bourne series, Damon promises there will be a fourth. He and director Paul Greengrass - with whom he made Bournes 2 and 3 and also made The Green Zone (set for release next spring) - are both keen to continue the saga.

"Next year is probably unlikely, just given that it's September already, but you never know. Lightning could strike and we could figure out exactly what we want to do and feel like we should do it right away. . . .

"The good news, for me, because I love the character so much, is that everyone seems to want to do another one. And people really seem to want to see another one. I get stopped on the street a lot here in New York, people ask 'Is there going to be another Bourne movie?' That's a really good sign, and we want to give people another really good Bourne movie.

"We just want to make sure we get it right."

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.

Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/ philly/blogs/onmovies/

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