Sort of like an Erin Brockovich without the message, comic relief or push-up bras, Michael Clayton hinges on a class-action lawsuit brought against a conglomerate responsible for poisoning hundreds of people. The difference here is that the central figure, a corporate attorney played by George Clooney, works for the firm that represents the multinational giant — not the side trying to slay it.
A self-described “janitor,” Clayton doesn’t work in a courtroom. His job is performed behind the scenes. He’s the lawyer other lawyers call when their clients get into messes that need cleaning up. At least, that’s the way things usually work. He finds himself in unfamiliar territory early in the film, when the mess he’s called in to tidy turns out to have been made by a friend who works for the same firm.
Tom Wilkinson is typically mesmerizing in the role of a senior partner who has snapped after investing six years in the case — only to come across internal documents proving the agro-chemical company knew its product posed a health hazard from the beginning. At a deposition in Milwaukee, where he is supposed to finalize details of a pre-trial settlement, Wilkinson instead tears off his clothes and declares his love for a dumbfounded young plaintiff. His state of mind isn’t helped by the fact that he’s manic-depressive and off his meds.
Sydney Pollack plays the boss, who wants Wilkinson muzzled before his antics scuttle a pending merger. Tilda Swinton gives a jittery performance as the head legal counsel for U/North, the company being sued for billions. She’s in line for the top management slot and wants Wilkinson silenced before his attack of conscience can cost the company additional billions and her the promotion of a lifetime. Clooney’s character initially does his best to rein in the loose cannon because it’s his job to protect the firm’s interests. Before long, though, he finds himself doing so because he fears for his friend’s safety.
As well he should. The directorial debut of accomplished screenwriter Tony Gilroy (whose credits include all three Bourne pictures), Michael Clayton is equal parts unhurried character study and paranoid legal melodrama. It’s really two very different movies deftly spliced into one, though I have to say I found the plotline in which Swinton’s rather ill-defined character hires high-tech hit men to be incongruous with the film’s down-to-earth, richly detailed portrait of its title character. Clayton is a man who’s made a mess of his life in many respects and struggles to find the moral courage to clean up his own act.
Clooney plays his part beautifully. There’s a haunted look in his eyes, a pallor and fleshiness to his face that lend him a dazed, Dan Rather-ish appearance as he tallies the ways he’s wasted his time and talent — a failed marriage, a failed side business, a gambling addiction and the sacrifice of a once-promising legal career for a gig as a glorified bag man.
Everyone in this excellent cast is at the top of his or her game. The same can be said of the talented team that shot, edited and scored the picture. The weak link is the man in charge. Gilroy’s direction has an old-school elegance to it. Ironically, it’s his screenplay that’s the problem. His writing is undermined here by an awkward mixture of hard-nosed realism and comic book nefariousness. I realize the film is a critical darling, but I just didn’t buy the Swinton character or the whole murder-as-legal-maneuver business. It seems like stuff that belongs in a completely different kind of movie, perhaps something more over the top and out there like The Devil’s Advocate, which envisioned Satan as the ultimate attorney (and which Gilroy also wrote).
Of course, nobody is buying a ticket to see a Tony Gilroy movie. To the extent that an audience is lining up, it’s to see a George Clooney movie — and that, barring the actor’s occasional Ocean’s lark, is a term that’s become synonymous with thoughtul, topical fare. Think Good Night, and Good Luck. Think Syriana. Think the new documentary Sand and Sorrow. If that’s what you’re seeking in Michael Clayton, you may want to think again.