Michael Clayton is the directorial debut of Tony Gilroy (better known for his Bourne series screenplays). It stars George Clooney as Mister Clayton himself; a fixer of things in need of a solution (think Winston Wolfe in Pulp Fiction, only not as polished). He finds himself in the middle of two situations — one personal and one professional – both equally difficult to make sense of.
On the personal front, his restaurant partnership with his drug addicted brother has gone belly-up. That alone is bad enough, but to add insult to injury he has incurred a $75,000 debt owed to some nefarious individuals that have let him know, in no uncertain terms, that there are consequences if the money isn’t paid in a weeks time. On the professional side of things, the law firm that employs him, Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, has found itself embroiled in a major dilemma. Their lead counsel Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has had an epiphany (onset by the stopping of his meds) and has suddenly discovered he has morals and that for years he’s been defending the wrong people. UNorth, the agricultural giant he is representing has a major issue with that; they stand to lose billions if the memo he is flaunting to the claimants gets leaked, since it clearly spells out their negligence and guilt.
Gilroy makes it clear from the beginning that Michael Clayton was not going to be just another law-action film (insert any John Grisham movie here), lawyer discovering morals movie (i.e., The Devil’s Advocate , which Gilroy also did the screenplay too) or a corporate whistleblower type of movie (i.e., The China Syndrome). Naming the movie after the lead character and being introduced to him at a back alley poker game ensures that the focus is more about the man than the system he is a part of. Clayton is a mostly flawed man – he’s divorced, got a gambling problem, uninspired by his job and heavily in debt due to bad business decisions – but he puts his own problems aside to save his friends from certain destruction. It’s a refreshing change from the typical action films with law undertones. But it does have drawbacks.
First, the film deals with internal struggles of a single individual, which can be quite problematic. The casting of Clooney as Clayton was a good choice overall, but there were times that I found him out of sorts – his nonemphatic delivery and blank stare looks didn’t always capture the intensity of the moment. This could have been offset with a stronger supporting cast; Tilda Swinton as the head of UNorth spends most of her time acting and looking dumbfounded, and Sydney Pollack as Clayton’s boss, plays his usual fatherly-like role. The only person really stepping up to the plate was Tom Wilkinson. I got a clear impression his character had seen the light and wanted to atone for his sins. The other pitfall was having side plots that didn’t amount to much. I found myself wanting to know more about the restaurant endeavor gone bad and more about Clayton’s troubled family life. Gilroy kept referring to them, but never really got around to doing anything more with them other than using them as asides to Clayton’s complexity.
As I said before, Michael Clayton is a refreshing change from the norm. The relatively intriguing storyline coupled with the strength of Clooney (who looks as dapper as ever) makes this a good candidate for a movie to get out of the house to see. So check it out – it doesn’t look like there are many good movies arriving in theaters in the next few weeks anyways.