Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Movie Review: Michael Clayton

The reviews for Michael Clayton all say it's a movie for grown-ups with really strong performances. I agree with that. They also say it's a great film but I'm not so sure about that. I think it's better looking back on it than it was sitting through it. Though that might be influenced by the woman sitting near me in the theater wearing way way too much perfume.

George Clooney plays Michael Clayton, a "fixer" at a high powered law firm. While some describe him as miracle worker, he describes himself as a janitor that cleans up messes. He deals with the shadier parts of his clients' and firms' problems so he's not a partner in the firm. Rather he's the goto man of Marty Bach the firm's head played by Sydney Pollack who always seems to play a morally compromised man in charge. The firm is a representing U/North, an agrochemical company in a class action suit. Tom Wilkinson plays Arthur Edens, one of Clayton's friends and colleagues who has been on the case for years and Tilda Swinton plays is U/North's legal council Karen Crowder. When Arthur goes off his meds and his actions threaten the case, Clayton is assigned to fix things and Crowder has to make sure her company is protected.

So that's the plot, but in an odd definition of that word, that's not what the film is about. The film is well titled as it's about Clayton. He was a good prosecutor who became a good litigator and then found he was a great fixer. He's divorced and regularly sees his young son. He's had a gambling problem and tried to open a restaurant with his brother who had a drug or drinking problem. That failed and now he owes $75,000. Clayton seems at the end of his rope. He doesn't like where he is in life and unlike his cases, he doesn't known how to fix his life.

My issues with the film stem from the fact that we don't see Clayton's problems as much as we're told about them. E.g., we don't know anything about his divorce. It could be he worked too much, or his gambling or maybe he had an affair or anything else. Perhaps it doesn't matter, but we're in the same situation for all aspects of him. We don't know about his gambling problem, just that he had one. We don't know about the restaurant, just that it failed. We don't know about his parents or siblings, just that his brother had a problem. The film's arc is not about Clayton but about the end of the U/North case, even though we see it mostly through Clayton's involvement.

Michael Clayton is written and directed by Tony Gilroy. It's his first directing job but he's written before, mostly notably the three Bourne films. The film dives into the middle and then flashes back to 4 days prior. The first 45 minutes or so require a lot from the viewer to piece together who's who and what's going on. A lot of the conversations don't have nouns, just things like "Are we going to do this thing?" What helps is that the performances are all really strong. Clooney shows on his face all the struggles Clayton is going through. it's subtle, he's not the most emotive character but it's all there. Wilkinson has a showier role playing a manic depressive off his meds. He straddles the line of brilliant lawyer or crazy person very well. Swinton also has a juicy role as a nervous executive practicing her spoken lines and crossing the moral ones.

The story might be a little over the top but just a little. It could be something you read about in the paper and all the characters come across as real people, not mere characters. I think one reason people like this film is that no one is stupid. It's about smart people in complex and difficult circumstances. Unlike for the vast majority of films made today, there's no eye-rolling involved in watching Michael Clayton and no suspension of disbelief needed. That's not something to be discounted. But I would have liked more background on Clayton, perhaps seeing more than merely 4 days of the story. I don't need to be spoon fed but I don't like having to assume everything about a character; particularly in a character study. Stories about lawyers selling their souls for their careers (that is for money) are almost cliche, to do it well you need to bring something more to the table and not just make your viewers fill in the details how they want (that sounds like my issues with the Sopranos finale). Michael Clayton is clearly a good movie that deserves its 90% Rotten Tomatoes rating, but I'm not so sure about reviews that say it's the best movie of the year.

1 comment:

Nancy said...

You know, I agree with you. I really liked the movie but had some of the same issues with it that you did. But all in all, I thought it was really well done. It held my attention and I wanted to see what happened next. I know that's a bit um... plebian, but it is good to see a movie that can at least do that.