Archive for October 5, 2007

Michael Clayton

October 5, 2007

George Clooney comes across as a guy who’s way ahead of you. In his usual screen persona, he knows what he knows, and sometimes he shares it and sometimes he doesn’t; he never says anything irrelevant. Now that Harrison Ford has drifted away from good roles for a few years, Clooney is the pre-eminent voice of reason and voice of authority in American movies. He keeps Michael Clayton going all by himself, but it’s heavy lifting. The movie, a first turn behind the camera for screenwriter Tony Gilroy (the Bourne films), is a drained and lugubrious legal almost-thriller with volumes of off-the-record, behind-closed-doors chatter. At first we’re flattered to get a peek behind the curtain, but as the movie goes on (and on) it seems like a lot of brooding over nothing fresh.

Clooney is the titular character, a “fixer” for a major New York law firm. Michael knows who to talk to, what favors to call in. He’s given a variety of Screenwriting 101 quirks: he has a gambling problem, he started a bar that went under, he’s divorced and has a smart young son who’s always trying to get him to read his favorite fantasy novels. Little of this coheres into a character; it just seems tossed in. Michael’s firm wants to wrap up a lengthy case wherein a major client, a chemical company, is defending itself against a lawsuit because a weedkiller it manufactured has killed hundreds of people. The firm’s top litigator, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), has stumbled across evidence that implicates the company, and his guilt has driven him off his meds and into insanity. Michael is charged with making sure Arthur doesn’t go public.

Michael Clayton is about regaining humanity after a life of aiding the wealthy and corrupt, and it stays with Michael’s growing bitterness and desperation. The potential is there for a smart, adult drama that illuminates the soul of the compromised. But Tony Gilroy is a better writer than director. The movie swims around in despairing grays and blues, as if the celluloid itself had given up in sympathy with Michael. We’ve seen the plot motor before (A Civil Action, Erin Brockovich) — couldn’t Gilroy have come up with something else? The dialogue may crackle, but the characters are standard-issue, including an icy woman lawyer (Tilda Swinton) who has moments of private nervousness, rehearsing her lies in front of a mirror. Great: the only woman with a significant speaking part in what’s being touted as a complex drama is alternately a witch and a fumbly teenager.

I appreciate that Gilroy attempts to give everyone flaws, but they feel too Hollywood-stamped. There are even two impersonal goons who loom in the shadows to carry out the chemical company’s dirty work. Michael Clayton has mood to burn — a sour, bluesy mood, the mood of weary men drowning their sorrows at the end of a rough day — but not much legitimate feeling. Clooney barely cracks a smile, so he doesn’t have access to the cockiness that often draws us to him. Michael is a hollow man in, ultimately, a hollow film. Complexity, to me, doesn’t involve placing the central character on the side of the angels and reassuring the audience that justice will be done. The movie is an odd duck — a depressive feel-good film, in which the characters we care about exchange their gray hats for white ones, and the black-hat characters keep theirs on.

The final shot, which goes on long enough to call attention to itself, stares at Michael sitting in a taxi cab and, we presume, thinking about the life he wants out of — and is on his way out of. It’d work better if we hadn’t just seen a similar shot in Eastern Promises, wherein Viggo Mortensen sat silently and mulled over the violent life he couldn’t escape. Here, the focus on Clooney’s face reads as an easy way to give the impression that the movie is more thoughtful than it is. Michael Clayton is sleek and technically accomplished, but for all its complicated talk it feels disappointingly facile. Its bottom line is that people should feel bad for working for corrupt corporations whose neglect kills people. Who doesn’t know that? And who would rather see a complex drama about the actual people who died and lost loved ones because of corporate shenanigans, rather than about their legal saviors? I would.