Movie review by Greg Carlson
Tony Gilroy, whose work on the screenplays for the “Bourne” trilogy have earned plenty of accolades, not only writes but directs the spartan legal thriller “Michael Clayton,” a star showcase for George Clooney. Aiming for the vibe of 1970s paranoia-themed movies, Gilroy’s first behind-the-camera effort comes up a bit short, feeling instead at times like a cross between “Erin Brockovich” and several of John Grisham’s sillier yarns. At its best, however, “Michael Clayton” proves a great deal smarter than “The Firm” and “The Pelican Brief,” and the well-cast movie is bound to please audiences in search of grown-up fare.
Michael Clayton works for Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, a huge corporate firm in NYC. Despite being credentialed to practice law, Clayton has become the firm’s clandestine fixer, a shadowy problem-solver whose instincts and connections allow the company’s hot shot attorneys to keep raking in cash. As the title character, Clooney opts to give Clayton a haggard, world-weary quietness that belies the assertiveness and persuasiveness he wields when in a tight spot. Most of the movie is told in flashback, a device that hinders the story in the early sections, but pays off handsomely in the last act.
The vertiginous opening portion of the film drops the viewer into the middle of another night at the office for Clayton, as he is called to deal with a jittery client who has hit a jogger with his car. Gilroy quickly begins juggling several threads, and viewers accustomed to having everything explained in detail must pay attention in order to keep up with the story. The movie’s rhythm and pacing, however, which favors a laid back thoughtfulness rich in well-observed detail, stands in contrast to the frenetic, white knuckle approach of the “Bourne” series.
One of the movie’s most problematic shortcomings has to do with Clayton’s value and position within the firm. He repeatedly refers to himself as a “janitor,” cleaning up potentially embarrassing and costly messes for his bosses. Given his personal access to and familiarity with several of the power players at Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, one wonders why he is not better compensated. Gilroy withholds specific information, choosing instead to suggest that Clayton himself has been a wild card, gambling away a fortune on high stakes card games and a failed restaurant he bankrolled for his substance-abusing brother. Clooney comes off as far too bright not to have leveraged his unique occupation, and a late scene that literally forces him to choose between cash and conscience feels too obvious.
Clooney is surrounded by terrific actors, and Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, and Sydney Pollack are vivid and memorable. As a mentally-ill litigator whose non-medicated mind sympathizes with the plaintiffs in a case he is defending, Wilkinson gets to play the movie’s most theatrical character. The veteran actor avoids nearly all the pitfalls of “movie crazy,” and brings depth and humanity to his part. Gilroy also spends just enough time with Swinton to make her unscrupulous aspirant to power chilling yet believable. Pollack, who makes masculine, old-school power-brokering look easy, runs away with his scenes, delivering the movie’s most acerbic lines with the perfect hint of sarcastic authority.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 10/22/07.