Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

Similar to the way my parents must feel about me, George Clooney’s new thriller ‘Michael Clayton’ just didn’t quite live up to its expectations.  Screened a week earlier for critics in New York and Los Angeles, the reviews came trickling in hailing ‘Michael Clayton’ a masterpiece.  I make it a point not to read any of those reviews as not to taint whatever my views on a particular film will be, but though the text can be avoided, the splash headlines cannot and as such it was with baited breath I waited for my opportunity to view veteran screen writer Tony Gilroy’s directorial debut.  And ultimately, I found ‘Michael Clayton’ merely okay.

Michael Clayton is a lawyer, but not just any kind of lawyer as Michael doesn’t go to court, doesn’t file requisitions or any of the other lawyer stuff we see, but he is a fixer, as we see in the opening scenes where we get to witness Michael assisting a wealthy man who was the driver in a hit and run accident.  The man is becoming disillusioned, as Michael is explaining his limited options, because his lawyer had told him that Michael is a ‘miracle worker’ to which Michael corrects him by informing the man that in all actuality he’s a janitor who cleans up messes.  The less the mess, the easier it is to clean and this is a big mess.  As Michael drives away from this particular incident, he is obviously troubled by something which leads to him to get out of his Benz and look at some wild horses, which is followed by his car blowing up.  Now it’s time to back track a few days and see what led to somebody wanting to kill Michael Clayton.

In brief, manic depressive lawyer Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) is chief council for a huge Manhattan law firm in a the middle of a six year three billion dollar class action

law suit for their biggest client, an agricultural company which genetically engineered a seed that basically killed people.  Arthur has stop taking his meds, and coupled with the pressures of the case, has lost his mind.  The head of the firm, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) dispatches Michael to find his mentor and make everything right again.  Michael also has a myriad of personal issues he is dealing with as well.  Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), who is lead council for this agricultural company and also teeters on the edge sanity herself is faced with the overwhelming fear that the architect of their defense strategy is now working against them, and thus makes a few rather powerful ‘executive decisions’ that have some long lasting ramifications.  All of this leads to a moral play for Michael Clayton, in should he do what’s best for society, or do what’s best for Michael.  He is a lawyer after all, so that decision isn’t an easy one.

As I said, it would have served me well not to hear how great ‘Michael Clayton’ is because even though I question its ‘greatness’ I do think it is a good movie.  The thing that is great about ‘Michael Clayton’ is the performances by its actors, particularly its star George Clooney.  If George Clooney has a gift as an actor, it is his ability to make whatever comes out of his mouth sound like the gospel truth.  It worked for him as doctor in ‘ER’, it worked for him as a con in those Oceans movies, and it works for him to perfection as lawyer in this movie too (Out of respect for Mr. Clooney I’m conveniently forgetting ‘Batman and Robin’).  When Clayton tells the rich man at the beginning of this film what his options are, I’m convinced this man better listen.  When a weathered Clayton attempts to convince Arthur to come to his right senses, though his right senses are on the wrong side of right, I still buy Clayton’s argument.  Clooney manages to give Clayton experience, reason, some conviction and realism simply by the bags under his eyes.  Swinton, Pollack, Wilkinson all give fine performances, and we even had a ‘White Shadow’ sighting with Ken Howard doing fine work as the chief of the board of this evil agricultural company.

As far as the narrative that these fine performances were framed around, it was certainly nothing special.  Not too dissimilar from the Paul Newman vehicle a few years back in ‘The Verdict’, which also featured the always evil big corporation stomping on the little guy, and the morally challenged lawyer forced into make some big decision.  ‘Michael Clayton’ also tended to drag a bit with the pace of the film being somewhat staid, and though I did appreciate the views into Clayton’s private life as it did give the character more texture, it seemed to me that perhaps too much time was spent there and some this could have been trimmed to pick up the pace a bit.  Also, though it’s always cool to see stuff blow up, the reasons behind Michael’s car going boom seemed completely out of left field and lastly, even though I thoroughly enjoyed the actual performance of George Clooney’s showdown with the Tilda Swinton’s character, the payoff was about as run of the mill as it gets.

Don’t misunderstand me because I did think ‘Michael Clayton’ was a good film, just one that probably falls a bit short of the blanket of praise it received on both coasts.  Certainly worth seeing however, if for nothing else than to witness the outstanding star turn turned in by George Clooney.

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