Michael Clayton is a good film. An undeniably well acted and impassioned effort. It represents the combined creativity of individuals known for their solid celluloid reputations and uses its post-modern passivity as a way around the standard thriller genre formulas. With multinational scandals involving Halliburton and Enron still fresh in the public’s frame of reference, its ‘big business vs. the undeniable truth’ dynamic has all the ear markings of a considered crowd pleaser. And then there are the performances – rock hard examples of motion picture Methodology that speak to the talent inherent in the upper echelons of the profession. So Michael Clayton is a lot of things – somber, menacing, heartfelt, and heroic. It tells an intriguing tale in a wonderfully evocative manner. Unfortunately, there is one thing that it’s not – and that’s great.
Most films with this much quality and caliber behind them usually find ways to reach a kind of creative convergence. Like the movie it’s most akin to – Sidney Lumet’s masterful The Verdict – there’s a strange subjective synchronicity that occurs. Everything blends – the acting, the script, the direction, the art design, the subplots, the supporting players, even the seemingly insignificant sequences - to propel us from point A to point B on a cushion of able aesthetic air. Michael Clayton doesn’t contain this. Instead, it’s an overwritten work that reaches beyond its corporate intrigue basics to address issues both metaphysical and downright meaningless. The immense amount of aptitude inherent in everyone involved is a huge benevolent barricade to overcome. But first time feature filmmaker Tony Gilroy (responsible for the coolly kinetic scripts for the Bourne franchise) lets tangents and unnecessary histrionics mar what would otherwise be a winning awards season home run.
Our plot begins in the middle, with the title character (played with angst driven darkness by a great George Clooney) locked in mid-meltdown. The high level New York law firm, where he works as a ‘fixer’ – read: solver of the unsolvable problems - has been involved in a massive class action civil suit for the last six years. They represent the corrupt chemical firm U/North, a faceless international agricultural conglom that’s accused of poisoning the people of small farms all throughout the United States. Thanks to the maverick decisions of senior partner Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) however, the pre-litigation process has dragged on and on, providing lots of billable hours. One day, the man loses his mind, stripping naked in the middle of a deposition and spewing semi-psychotic rhetoric. Even with his history of manic depression, Clayton recognizes something is significantly wrong. The crackup calls into question the firm’s ability to represent their client, and this causes U/North’s in-house council (Tilda Swinton) to panic. She calls in her own group of ‘maintenance’ men, who have much deadlier ways of dealing with this kind of concern.
From that description alone, Michael Clayton appears masterful. It has the look of legitimate Oscar bait, from its muted cinematography and sweeping compositional grandeur to the moments of individual nuance, as when Swinton’s stressed out witch sweats through her clothes during a bathroom panic attack. Yet combating those stylistic strategies is dialogue that’s dripping with freshly scribbled insignificance, rants meant to sound formidable but end up appearing rather surreal. Since we don’t meet Wilkinson’s eccentric attorney until he’s already swung over to the demented dark side, we have little to compare against his ever present speechifying. There’s no balance to his nuttiness, no way of seeing beyond the bare ass brimstone caught on tape. While he’s an intriguing catalyst for all that will come, he’s hollow as the center of self-righteous indignation.
Clooney is much better at metering out morality while avoiding its ethical sting. When we first meet Clayton, he’s in the midst of a hit and run jam. Setting right a priggish client who expects miracles instead of a visit from the police, we get the standard reactionary riot act. But then Gilroy gives Clooney an additional moment, a chance to give this jerk a definitive dressing down that underscores his overall dissatisfaction with his job. Like a superhero for screw-ups, Clayton is an overworked wizard, and the procedural aspects of his job would make a stellar suspense flick in their own right. But our screenwriting savant can’t leave well enough alone. He has to pile on the problems – gambling, indebtedness, bad business sense, a drug addled brother, pain in the butt ex, seldom seen son, and a glum, unforgiving family. By the time our lead discovers the cabal plotting against him, we sense its purpose could come from a dozen different interpersonal directions.
Oddly enough, it’s the supporting parts that help keep things in check. Sydney Pollack plays a partner with a combination of tenacity and culpability. He recognizes how crooked his firm is, but also senses that things haven’t reached John Grisham territory – at least not yet. Michael O’Keefe is excellent as the asshole that sees through everyone while compelled to hurl those harmful glass house stones, and Sean Cullen is cool if cranky as Michael’s less than understanding cop sibling. Since they appear only briefly and must make their impact immediately, Gilroy doesn’t goof around. He keeps these ancillary facets tight and direct. It’s in stark contrast to one of the movie’s more disturbing subplots – the fact that Wilkinson’s character appears to be indirectly seducing the teenage sister of one of the plaintiffs. While it may be nothing more than a case of insanity fueled white knighthood, there is a creepy, near pedophilic vibe to the material that makes us uncomfortable.
Besides, Michael Clayton doesn’t really need to go and push those buttons. It’s already overstocked with far too many possible dramatics. It doesn’t have to expand into faulty fringe elements or disturbing depravity. But Gilroy trips up and gives in to the temptation to expand whenever the magnifying muse calls, and the story starts to unravel about halfway through. All the late night cellphone calls and dirt digging may seem suspenseful, but when placed aside a man who screams about saving innocence, our corporate counsel with hitmen on her speed dial, and a protagonist who will play all sides against each other to complete the mandatory last act comeuppance, it becomes ambiguous. Maybe post-millennial audiences will respond to a movie that appears incapable of maintaining a single, strong focus. They’re probably used to such ADD styled situations from their own personal plight.
Still, Michael Clayton does offer some entertainment heft. It anticipates our expectations and prepares an answer in advance. It sees human foibles as badges of honor, and views the standard business model as an evil means to an always criminal ends. As a main man crush, Clooney could cobble together a series of scenes based on the phone book and viewers would still find him imminently fascinating. It’s to Gilroy’s good fortune that he agreed to hop on board. Without him, this otherwise fractured non-noir would turn tumbleweed and simply blow away. Everything here adds up to a wonderful mainstream achievement. Sadly, there’s very little art or its mastery to be found.