Objectively speaking, there’s very little about Michael Clayton that isn’t to like : the acting is strong all around, the plot for the most part coheres, the directing is tight, and the entire movie crackles with a charged intensity and suspense that will commend it to any critic. From a more human perspective, though, there’s no reason why anyone would particularly want to immerse oneself in this movie, this George Clooney Oscar vehicle, as it glories in the lives of a set of thoroughly unattractive and unscrupulous characters.
Clooney plays the titular Michael Clayton, a “fixer” for a powerful law firm – he is the one who swoops in to save the day when the firm is faced with a problem, or when a client is in trouble; his job is to prevent situations from getting any worse or if possible to make them go away altogether. If you saw Thank You for Smoking, imagine Aaron Eckhart’s West Coast, funny-man spin-doctor transferred to an especially dark and grey New York City with all the implications that that entails and you should have some idea of his character. Clooney is quite good in the role, actually, somehow managing to keep a handle on the roguishness that has brought him so much success in less serious fare, and a good part of why the movie succeeds is in his performance. In brief, Clooney’s Clayton is called in to get firm partner Arthur Edens (an especially scene-chewing Tom Wilkinson) under control as a case under Arthur’s control, defending major agrabusiness firm U/North, is heading into settlement. Arthur, it turns out, has had a change of heart in the affair – partly due to a bad strain of manic-depression that leads him to behavior that if put in its best light could only be called erratic. The situation, of course, escalates, eventually turning deadly, as pressure from all around closes in on Michael as he tries to get to the bottom of things. At the same time, he is battling his own inner demons and trying to be a father to his son.
It all works, for the most part, because there?s little to find fault in with any area of production. I’ve already noted Clooney’s strong performance; Tilda Swinton is excellent as the U/North executive desperately trying to cover up her company’s wrongdoing; Wilkinson is effectively insane in all the scenes he’s seen in; even Sydney Pollack puts in a strong performance as Clayton’s immediate superior at the law firm. The same is true of the direction, which keeps the film moving at just the right pace to maintain interest. At times the story borders on the ludicrous (perhaps only because one doesn?t want to believe that this is the way companies operate in real life), but even then the other elements keep it all together. As a movie, Michael Clayton is among the best I’ve seen all year; but it’s weighty and dark and nihilistic as well, and the question is whether or not anyone really wants to watch that.
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