Monday, October 22, 2007

Who is "Michael Clayton"?


directed and written by Tony Gilroy
starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack

Although no one could possibly call “Michael Clayton” an adult film (though a man – not George Clooney, alas – does get naked), there’s no question that it’s a film made for adults. As such, it feels oddly out of sync with a Hollywood culture that seems increasingly obsessed with the fantasies and fixations of adolescence, especially male adolescence. At the same time, it doesn’t quite belong to this fall’s bumper crop of political movies (“In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition,” “Lions for Lambs,” etc.) that tackle thorny moral issues raised by terrorism and the Iraqi war, though some critics have put it in this group and labeled the entire group a throwback to post-Watergate conspiracy theory classics like “The Parallax View,” “Three Days of the Condor,” and “All the President’s Men.”

“Michael Clayton” is the closest in spirit and style to those ’70s milestones, and writer-director Tony Gilroy has made no secret of their influence. Indeed, one of the main characters (played by Tom Wilkinson) is clearly a reworking of Howard Beale, the mad oracle of “Network.” But “Michael Clayton” isn’t really a paranoid thriller—or to the extent it attempts to be, it’s serviceable but not nearly as effective as the films it invokes. At its heart, and where it works best, it’s a psychological portrait of a man who’s all but succumbed to the Man, when external events force him to reconsider.

Clooney stars as Clayton, a “fixer” in an elite New York corporate law firm. A former litigator, he now functions, in his own words, as the firm’s janitor, pulling strings and calling contacts to clean up problems that crop up in the course of business – whether the firm’s or its clients’. A doozy of a problem arises when a colleague, senior partner and top litigator Arthur Edens (no symbolism there, I’m sure), goes off his meds and has either a meltdown or an epiphany, depending on your point of view, in the middle of the billion-dollar class action suit he’s defending on behalf of U North, a giant agrochemical manufacturer accused of poisoning unsuspecting Midwestern farmers. After several years and thousands of billable hours, Arthur strips naked in the middle of a deposition and begins referring to himself as “Shiva, god of death” and doing everything possible to screw over U North in the case. Enter Michael Clayton, who’s called in by the firm’s managing partner (Sydney Pollack) to bring Arthur back to the fold and reassure the understandably concerned client.

Michael is supposed to be phenomenally good at his job, but we don’t see that in evidence here, perhaps because he’s approaching the end of his own personal tether. He makes no headway at all with Arthur, who soon goes awol on him, and does nothing to soothe the ruffled nerves of U North’s general counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton). Then again, it’s doubtful anything could have soothed down that one, knowing what she knows, and what Arthur apparently also knows. It turns out, as Michael eventually discovers, that crazy Arthur may have been on to something that U North is willing to pay any price to hide.

The overall arc of the plot is nothing new, and the film’s pacing is too measured to deliver any sustained sense of urgency. Gilroy does deliver an occasional pulse-quickening jolt and some genuinely tense sequences—though nothing that comes close to the drawn-out suspense of the “Bourne” movies, which he scripted. But again, “Clayton” is less a thriller than a study of human beings as cogs in a machine, all suddenly thrown off balance when one detaches itself and falls away. Shot in cool and sober hues and less-than-flattering light, the film underscores the contrast between the sleek trappings of their lives and the grim emptiness, or worse, that yawns beneath. And even though Michael is the moral and narrative center, the story is really a foursquare portrait of the individuals most affected by Arthur’s revolt, and the choices they’re forced to make as a consequence.

For this reason, perhaps, “Clayton” in some ways feels more like a string quartet than a solo, and fortunately all parts are expertly played. Clooney, ironically, may be the weakest link, and he’s still very good. He gives fine shading to his role as a talented but flawed man who sold out over the years, only to gamble away much of the tangible rewards for doing so. I didn’t, however, quite buy him as someone whose indispensability lay in his ability to fly under the radar. Oddly, he was more convincing playing similar types in “Syriana” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Maybe it’s because he looked schlubbier in those films; but more than that, there’s something too abrasive, too sardonic, about his performance here, even if one assumes that Michael, too, is on the verge of a crackup. My friend Nick Davis, in a very insightful review of the movie, has suggested that an actor like David Strathairn might have been better suited to the role, and I’m inclined to agree. Weary and embittered as Michael Clayton must be, one expects from the construction of his character that he would internalize his bitterness more than Clooney does here.

Suspension of disbelief proves much easier with the rest of the cast. Pollack, who’s likely to be unjustly overlooked, is excellent as Michael’s dryly amoral boss, and looks more like a law firm partner than some law firm partners I know. Certainly more so than Wilkinson, who has to wrap his tongue around oratory that veers from unhinged to inspired and back again, and who still seems to be struggling with the American accent. But there is one scene, with Michael in an alleyway, in which Arthur snaps briefly back into focus and shows a glimpse of the ruthless litigator he once was. It’s shiver-inducingly good, and Wilkinson’s shift from vague distraction to hard-eyed lucidity in the space of those fleeting moments is masterful.

The real standout among all these standouts, however, is Swinton, who totally inhabits the persona of the corporate counsel who’s subsumed herself wholly to the corporation. We see her performing the part impeccably for the public, but we also see her offstage, sweating heavily and rehearsing obsessively for those performances. Somehow, Swinton manages to convey, simultaneously, imperturbable professional poise and the tautness of a string drawn so tight that it’s ready to snap at any moment. She may be the enemy, but she is also in some sense merely a performer who simply doesn’t know what to do when those around her stop performing. “Michael Clayton” poses the question of whether it’s ever too late to break free of a role you’ve spent your entire life perfecting. The most obvious answer is the one we’re rooting for, but perhaps the true strength of the film is the perceptiveness with which it presents the alternatives.

Clooney: B+
Wilkinson: A-
Swinton: A
Pollack: A-


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