Full credits from IMDb
It should be obvious that Michael Clayton is a character piece, since its title bears its main character’s name, but you’d have to read the back of the DVD to know that it’s also a piece of high-class corporate intrigue. Unfortunately, it stumbles in its attempts to reconcile the two, as well as in trying to reconcile the fact that while it’s made for adults, in that it doesn’t spoon-feed its audience, its earnest outrage at corporate corruption is at best naïve and at worst facile.
A Byzantine legal saga that opens in media res, Michael Clayton forces its audience to slowly make sense of it as it plays out. Director Gilroy allows scenes of dialogue to play out, only to explain in the middle of the next scene what the characters were talking about. In accordance, the picture opens with the ending and works its way back to how it got there.
Clayton is a lawfirm’s fixer, a “janitor,” sent to clean-up the mess made by an off-his-meds, manic-depressive Tom Wilkinson, a partner at Clayton’s firm who’s stripped naked in the middle of a deposition. Even worse, he’s begun to amass a case against the client he’s supposed to be defending, the manufacturer of a (poisonous) weed-killer that’s facing a class-action lawsuit from affected farmers—those noble American farmers.
George Clooney plays Clayton as a hangdog urban loser—introduced playing cards at midnight in a Chinatown basement—your standard sadsack (divorcee, custody on the weekends, losing his business on the side) who’s been screwed over by everyone, especially himself. As Tom Hanks is our Jimmy Stewart, Clooney has always been our Cary Grant, but Clooney continues to mature as an actor. As Clayton, he adds a bit of throaty husk to his voice, undercutting his movie star charisma. In effect, he’s added a measure of rugged Bogart to his graceful Grantness.
But Clooney’s performance is outdone by Wilkinson’s turn as the litigator who has flipped both his position and his wig. Wilkinson, captivatingly mad, rocks back and forth nervously and fidgets manically as he speaks, but never tips over into histrionics, impressively delivering nonsense lines—like, “I am Shiva, the God of Death”—with surprising credibility.
Tilda Swinton gives a fine turn as well (all three were nominated for acting Oscars, but only she won) as the cool-headed head-counsel. Gilroy cleverly clues us into her trembling vulnerability by belying her steely public professionalism through parallel editing; he introduces her by cutting between her confident delivery of public testimony and a private moment practicing the same speech, crying in the bathroom and topless but for a bra. (It’s her Marion Crane moment.)
With inspired bits like that, Gilroy commendably keeps the film deftly moving—it’s tight and terse without allowing its scenes to drag. (A tricky feat for a talky thriller.) Clooney, at one point, is leaving a dramatic message on Wilkinson’s voice mail but when enough’s enough Gilroy cuts him off. The mailbox is full; let’s get on with it.
But that’s because Gilroy’s got to move as quick as he can to cover all the ground he’s set up for himself. One of Michael Clayton’s biggest problems is that it spends a considerable number of its frames establishing aspects of Clayton’s character that don’t seem to have much impact on the corporate thriller that he’s a player within.
Gilroy’s other major problem is his immature indignation. Despite boasting one of film’s most chillingly clinical and procedural murder sequences, Michael Clayton is not a very chilling film. Corporations do terrible things and immoral law firms cover for them; it takes Clayton nearly an entire film to figure this out and to decide that it’s bad. If that’s a character arc, Clayton’s a little old to be learning it—it’s a simple lesson that college freshmen learn every fall.
The film ends with a bit of old-fashioned, self-righteous triumphalism incongruous with the bleak picture painted by the preceding film, and it makes sure that the audience isn’t implicated in the corruption that the film presents, leaving them free to tsk-tsk a corrupt, corporatized America from a comfortable and self-satisfied distance.
Clooney, with his earnest Murrowphilia, seems to appeal to one demographic above all—graying Democrats, who appreciate lessons learned and a dreary situation turned hopeful. Feel free to feel good—Clayton’s got a son, who he tells, “you’re not going to be one of these people that goes through life wondering why shit keeps falling out of the sky around them.” So there’s hope yet. In the real world, the Fed bails out Bear Sterns. It’s only people rich enough to buy an umbrella who don’t have to worry about shit falling out of the sky.
Watch the trailer: