October 14, 2007

Movie Review: Michael Clayton

Every time I saw the Michael Clayton trailer I got the impression that it would be a good movie, although I had absolutely no idea what it was about. It seemed to be setting up Clooney's title character as someone on the wrong side of a legal battle, but there was really no insight into what the story was. While I got the impression that it was going to be a good movie, I cannot say I felt any overriding desire to see it. The trailer was not put together in a manner that enticed me to plunk down my cash for it. Still, positive word swirled around it, and outside of superhero movies Clooney can generally be relied on for a good performance. I am glad I went, but I do not completely agree with the high praise that I have seen for it.

George Clooney is Michael Clayton, a fixer for a high-powered New York law firm. In other words, he is the guy called in when one of the firm's high priced clients gets into a mess, or to use Clayton's description he is a janitor. As the film opens, Clayton is in the midst of a high stakes underground poker match, as he leaves he gets a call. He heads out to the Westchester home of a man who was involved in a hit and run, and who left the scene. Clayton is described as a miracle worker by his bosses, but he appears as anything but. He stands in front of the client as a shell of what he is believed to be. This is not the miracle worker, but a man who is being beaten by the circumstances of his life and is on the cusp of a major turning point in his life.

Most of the middle of Michael Clayton is flashback. After our introduction to the worn down Clayton we are taken back to the beginning of a series of events that led him to the biggest moment of his life. It is in this middle where we get plenty of fully rendered characters that give the whole the illusion of being more intelligent than it should be. Well-crafted distractions that cover up a conventional and straightforward plot. It is these characters that elevate the mundane circumstances of the plot and make this film much better than it really has any right to be.

The plot is straightforward and easy to follow. There is a multi-billion dollar class action suit that has been ongoing for many years between a chemical company called U/North and the families of those they are accused of killing with their product. In the middle of a deposition the law firm's lead counsel strips down and appears to take the side of the plaintiffs. This leads to Clayton being called in to fix the problem. This brings the introduction of said counsel Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a man who has reached the edge of what he is willing to take. Every high priced law firm is going to have clients with secrets, secrets they are willing to pay the retainer fees to be kept secret. This has to weigh on the mind of those involved in keeping those secrets buried. Edens reached the point of no return, and became set on exposing the dirty laundry to the harsh light of day. The other primary player is U/North principal player Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton). She is a truly despicable character as she goes to great lengths to protect her company and herself.

The truth is slowly revealed to Clayton as he digs into the case. At the same his personal life is falling apart as well. His relationship with his son is a bit rocky, and the child lives with his ex-wife. Then there is the restaurant deal that went south due to his junkie brother. All of these elements are major players contending for Clayton's attention. The story takes a turn into the theme of redemption as Clayton attempts to reconcile all of these pieces of his life and get everything back on track.

The case unfolds in a predictable manner. There really was only one way that it could go, and I was not disappointed in that respect. What makes this movie as good as it is are the performances, not the plot. George Clooney is phenomenal as a man having his limits tested. Gone is the confident swagger of Danny Ocean leaving behind a weary man on the slow road to a breakdown. It is a strong portrayal and easily among Clooney's top performances. His powerful lead is supported by good turns from both Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton. Then there is a smaller role filled by Sydney Pollack who always brings a touch of class.

Tony Gilroy has spent the past few years helping craft the adventures of Jason Bourne as screenwriter for the Bourne trilogy. This time around he has delivered a script that may not be filled with twists and turns, or fist fights and car chases but it is no less interesting. Gilroy shows confidence in his words and in the performances of the cast to bring a sense of reality and intensity to this slow burning legal thriller. This also marks Gilroy's directorial debut, it may not be flashy, but it perfectly suits the dialogue driven nature of the piece.

While Michael Clayton is undeniably a good film and Clooney's performance is undeniably excellent, it is a movie that fails to deliver to the level that it could have. The plot was easy to put together and I feel that the excellence of the performances were just a little bit wasted on it. Still, this is a film well worth seeing on the big screen, only without the weight of excellence that swirls around it.



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