George Clooney is at his finest during the end credits, sitting calmly in the back of a cab, pondering everything that transpired in the movie we just saw. It’s subtle, it’s compelling, and it was a defining moment in his already great career. Only in 1998’s Out of Sight, was the two-time “SEXIEST MAN ALIVE” ever better. Ok, and maybe I’m partial to a few great ER episodes too, but that’s it! In Tony Gilroy’s directorial debut (writer of the Bourne Series) Michael Clayton serves as a political thriller, a deep character study, and a thesis about the activities of giant enterprises.
Clayton works as a “fixer” in an authoritative law firm in New York, using his connections and his knowledge of legal loopholes for his clients’ benefit. One day one of the firm’s leading attorneys and Clayton’s colleague Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) goes fucking BANANAS during a deposition involving a class action lawsuit against U-North, an agricultural products conglomerate. Clayton is brought to solve the mess. Meanwhile Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), U-North’s general counsel, discovers that Arthur has found some risky material about U-North which he is planning to expose, consequently damaging the corporation forever.
Clooney is moody and brusque throughout the film. Although this is another environmental lawsuit flick with the lead character’s name as the title, Clayton is the anti-Erin Brockovich. He is far from sassy. He’s beat, he wants out and he doesn’t seem to care that the company he defends is killing people with its weed killer. Tom Wilkinson (who looks notably good without his shirt off. Who knew? Reference: The Full Monty), is a brilliant litigator who as I said previously loses his marbles, particularly in a defying scene during proceedings. From here, the plot only thickens, as Clayton’s boss, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) and Tilda Swinton work tirelessly in order to save UNorth’s reputation.
As a character study, Michael Clayton is truly fantastic. The title is as it should be, because we get to know Clayton as a very multi-dimensional person; as a father, as a worker who detests his job but does it regardless, and as a man who struggles to find his moral compass (Similar to the likes of Jeffrey Wigand in Michael Mann’s The Insider and Winston Wolf from Pulp Fiction). However, with his realizations, ethics fail to prevail and Clayton seemingly solves problems in the most hopeless situations.
Michael Clayton exceeded my expectation in holding the viewer’s attention. Its structure and plot is highly complex; in fact about 2/3 of the movie is flashback (kind of like this review) to prepare us for what we saw in the first scene. The cinematography by Robert Elswit is commanding and the editing by Gilroy’s brother John fluent, which helps the viewer’s concentration keep up.
This film flourishes in many aspects, but it’s still not as brilliant as its seven Oscar nominations would lead you to believe. The primary problem is that it’s not quite as smart as it thinks it is. With the plot’s complexity we strive to believe this is a film of originality and unrivaled intelligence. *SPOILER ALERT*. It’s not. We end up recognizing it’s familiar premise about a fight for truth against mighty organizations, and it’s biggest weakness is it’s predictability.
Nevertheless, Michael Clayton is a well-acted, sharp written story with genuine twists that keep you involved. Although it may not be as smart as it wants to assume, it’s still a thinking person’s thriller. And as far as films about big business lawsuits that never see the courtroom…as good as it can be.
Contributed By Brandon Colón