Legal Thriller

George Clooney's 'Michael Clayton' offers movie-goers a nice time at the movies

Michael Clayton has a horrifying opening sequence: It's a voiceover. And not just any voiceover, but a voiceover doing the kind of pretentious, discovery-of-the-meaning-of-life speech that freshman creative-writing majors include in their stories about childhood abuse when they still think of themselves as geniuses.

And I wonder: When the director heard this speech, why didn't he cut it out of the movie? And if he didn't cut it out of the movie, isn't that a sure sign that the whole film is going to be painfully Deep and Meaningful?

But you know what? Michael Clayton is not painfully deep and meaningful. It's actually a very decently constructed legal thriller with a nice conspiracy twist, excellent acting and crisp, engaging and even witty dialogue. It's as though director Tony Gilroy put that opening sequence in just so we'd lower our expectations.

Which I did, and I wound up enjoying the film. George Clooney stars as a guy named Michael Brayton or Dayton or Rowayton or something. He works as a "fixer" at a law firm; in short, he's the guy the big-name corporate clients call when one of their board members accidentally kills a prostitute who happens to be his daughter while snorting coke out of a baby's skull.

Unfortunately, after working for years as the invisible man at law firm Kenner, Bach and Ledeen, he has nothing to show for his efforts, because the partners have had to give him a low profile in order to make him effective. So he's just an associate, and he's $75,000 in debt to some shady people who probably wear see-through socks accessorized with the blood of the innocent.

Then he finds himself sucked into a case involving Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a senior litigator at his own firm who has apparently switched sides and, tired of shilling for a large agricultural conglomerate that sells poison to freckle-faced Midwestern farmers, decides to go nuts, get naked in public and try to make the world a better place to live.

The latter is considered strictly haraam for corporate lawyers, so a cabal of pale-skinned golf addicts begin doing the necessary paperwork to have Mr. Edens converted into inorganic matter. In response, Clayton tries to fix everything, because that's in his job description, and unlike Mr. Edens, he has no qualms about that.

Director Gilroy is probably best known for writing the Bourne movies, so he has a certain flair with intrigue, secrets and double-crosses. But in his directorial debut, he shows a flair for pacing and camera placement, where he's ably helped by Paul Thomas Anderson's favorite lensman, Robert Elswit.

Gilroy has rounded up a tremendous cast. Clooney has just the right level of painful gravitas, looking like a man who's walking around with a pebble in his shoe. He's supported by Tilda Swinton as the chief lawyer for evil agro-company U/North. Swinton is so pale that, like the White Witch of Narnia, she automatically oozes evil. But in Michael Clayton, her evil is nicely complexified without, at any point, lessening its evil.

Swinton produces a character who is simultaneously icy and vulnerable, and who seems to be constantly looking over her shoulder. It makes her almost sympathetic, but not at the expense of lessening her immorality. Instead, we see that her vulnerability comes from her amoral attachment to her immoral activities.

The other supporting roles are also perfectly cast. Sydney Pollack, who's one of the best actors working today (and among the top 4,000 directors), and the sadly neglected Michael O'Keefe turn in granite-gray performances as Clayton's superiors at Kenner, Bach and Ledeen. Wilkinson hams it up a bit as the mentally disturbed Edens, but he does so without blowing his cover, and when it comes time for him to look sharp, he turns in one of the best short speeches I've seen this year.

So on the whole, Michael Clayton is a rewarding afternoon at the old cinema. What it is not is a deep exploration of the human condition or the horrors of corporate capitalism or the evil that men do. And thank God or Bog for that, because we've got way too many failed attempts at that movie, and not everyone needs to go around begging for Oscars with the script for their movie, about the mentally retarded man who teaches us to love, dangling from their slavering jaws.

Instead, Clayton is just a decently done thriller. There have been and will be better thrillers, but with its keen cinematic eye, sharp acting and tight pacing, this one will certainly do.

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