Michael Clayton (Warner Bros., R)

film_michaelclayton_sm.jpgWilkinson is mesmerizing as the unhinged attorney trying to come to grips with the filth he has trafficked during his professional life.

 

 

 

 

 

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Screenwriter turned first-time director Tony Gilroy (the Bourne films) and star George Clooney have turned in a well-paced, tense drama about how corporations and their flunkies and victims do the dance of damage control. The film highlights the high price we pay to cover and make good on the mistakes made by our friends, family and employers, and shows, devastatingly, that some problems just can’t be fixed.

Corporate attorney and "fixer" Michael Clayton (Clooney) works for a large law firm, among whose many clients is a chemical company desperately trying to fend off a killer lawsuit. When the lead attorney working the lawsuit (Tom Wilkinson) freaks out at a deposition—stripping naked before startled witnesses—Clayton is dispatched to take charge of the situation. This bizarre behavior jeopardizing this vital case triggers the involvement of a ruthless, corporate flack (Tilda Swinton) who is prepared to do anything to protect her company’s interests. Clayton himself must navigate personal problems, trying to pay attention to the son he shares custody of, and dealing with the fallout of a failed business venture with his deadbeat brother. As Clayton tries to understand his fellow attorney’s strange behavior, the corporation moves to protect its interests with deadly consequences.

The film’s chief strengths are its remarkable performances and its realism. Wilkinson is mesmerizing as the unhinged attorney trying to come to grips with the filth he has trafficked during his professional life. Swinton veers convincingly from doe caught in the headlights to decisive predator as the situation dictates. The film also feels undeniably real: from nondescript corporate boardrooms to cramped motels, the film is populated by people billing by the hour.

However, Michael Clayton is just shy of a great film. Clooney’s performance is flat—possibly intentionally so—and his diminished character is difficult to connect with and that hole in the center of the film plagues it throughout. The film can’t quite make up its mind as to whether it wishes to be a character drama centered on Clayton (in which case too much time is spent on the intrigue and not enough on key elements of Clayton’s background and character) or a taught corporate thriller (in which case there is WAY too much of Clayton’s back story).

A politically active movie star, Clooney’s film comes with an interesting central message. Reading the plot description, one could come prepared for a simple-minded lesson on the evils of corporations run amok or a society with too many lawyers. Instead, it leaves the audience to wonder why Swinton’s character acts the way she does. She is a corporate attorney; she could resign and work for hundreds of companies or law firms across the county. Companies lose cases, especially huge class action cases like the one in this film, all the time, and everybody goes on to work again. No lawyer ends up in a homeless shelter for losing a case. Instead, she makes a series of terrifyingly amoral decisions to try to protect the company. Why? Out of loyalty to her beloved former boss now above her in the company food chain? To prove her resolve, prove that she is capable of "doing what is necessary?" The film does not attempt to provide an answer, it just leaves the question out there for the audience to ponder and use to look at decisions in their own lives. | Joe Hodes

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