Michael Clayton
Director: Tony Gilroy. Cast: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack, Sean Cullen, David Lansbury, Austin Williams, Robert Prescott, Michael O'Keefe, Merritt Wever, Ken Howard, Denis O'Hare, David Zayas. Screenplay: Tony Gilroy.

Photo © 2007 Section Eight/Warner Bros. Pictures
Michael Clayton is the fall season's most interesting and rewarding contradiction. Overplotted, and guilty of repeating the same backward-looping structure that writer-director Tony Gilroy just pulled off with greater ingenuity in The Bourne Ultimatum, but nonetheless commanding in its shape and refreshingly alert to how a real person usually experiences one crisis within a web of other crises: professional, ethical, domestic, and introspective. Inconsistently acted, but never poorly acted, and graced with several distilled examples of truly inspired performance. Handsome in look and pristine in texture, even if the movie's elegant sheen affiliates it with the high-gloss corporate aesthetic that the rest of the film seems designed to interrogate, even to criminalize. Thematically diffuse, especially when we're asked to take such a debonair star as an emblem of modern disillusionment, and even more so when the broad diseases of a culture get repackaged at the conclusion into a duel between two paragons of Honesty and Deceit. Paradoxes abound all over Michael Clayton and impress themselves on every level of my response to it. And yet, say whatever else you will, such pervasive, inchoate dispersal of such mutually permeating anxieties has rarely been evoked so tautly at the center of a post-9/11 Hollywood movie, and the multiplex needs more movies where life, work, morality, and debt comprise the constellation of adult experience, unimpinged upon by concessions to youth audiences and unameliorated by any whiff of romance. Enigmas and imbalances of power persist. Sex remains the furthest thing from the movie's mind. Time-honored structures of narrative wobble, even if the wobbling betrays no truly radical inclinations. Even the audience-friendly finale affords plenty of room for the putative victor to sink back into doubt and impotence and for the villain, or the offstage cadre of villains, to sprout new hydra-heads and think of new survival tricks. Credit watchers, we few and proud, are rewarded by this movie, which isn't over until the final blackout cut, when the hero's name, spookily rendered in the sans-serifed idiom of the corporate business card, doesn't grace or complement Michael's image but actually snuffs it out.

Michael Clayton first impressed me with its scrumptiously succinct poster, which implies with code-orange urgency that "The Truth Can Be Adjusted" is the actual name of the film, and that Michael Clayton (George Clooney) exists as a bottom-margin footnote to his own story. Even his famous visage recedes in shallow focus behind the prevailing and precautionary moral for which his tale stands. A feat of pure design, the poster also reveals itself as an unusually apropos emblem of the film and the character it advertises. Michael isn't invisible to others so much as he is routinely, perhaps willfully blurred, or superimposed-upon, or just misperceived. His anxieties and his evident Achilles heels embarrass people. His abilities are exploitable for practical use but unappreciated for what they reveal of his character. Even his track record of success as a corporate fixer is something often heard but infrequently seen, and Gilroy as director plays adroitly to this glimmering irony within his script. The movie is called Michael Clayton, and the indisputable center of the film's concern is Michael Clayton, but unlike, say, Erin Brockovich, Michael keeps losing his scenes to other figures and coming up short in most of his dramatic arcs. A prologue sequence finds Michael trying to convince a well-heeled perpetrator of a hit-and-run collision why there is so little he can do to keep the man out of court. Denis O'Hare (A Mighty Heart), plays the spoiled hothead at such high volume, and fellow Tony winner Julie White (Transformers) fumes so hypnotically in the background, that we might commiserate with Michael as he quietly suffers this poisonous couple, or we might get overly distracted by these bratty aristocrats at the expense of registering any clear reaction whatsoever to Michael. If so, we overlook the bare facts of what he is saying: his hands are considerably and chronically tied in his attempts to fulfill his tawdry responsibilities in his unlovable job. Michael, as happens every few sequences, gets one comic zinger in this scene, even though it isn't written as an obvious punchline ("They don't call"), and neither Clooney's reading of the line nor the filming of the scene encourages us to laugh too long. Fatigue and annoyance persist as the prevailing moods in the room. By this point in the movie, we've already enjoyed another dry laugh upon catching Michael Clayton, aka Danny Ocean, crouching around a poker game in some blue-collar backroom where no one should be looking for him—his pocket change and his professional ID card, complete with unflattering photo, tossed into a plastic basket. But here, too, Oceanic associations aside, Michael's harsh countenance of tired self-criticism seems like more than a game face. Exhaustion, sourness, bewilderment, a close-to-the-vest desperation: these are the notes that continue to define the character, even as Tom Wilkinson's rattling voiceover about assholes as birth canals and patinas of shit saws away at the soundtrack, even as Michael is distracted on his way home from O'Hare's Westchester estate by a small clutch of handsome horses perched atop a hillside. Even as his car explodes, not once but twice, while he only happens to have stepped outside of it for an inarticulate, melancholic respite from his own life.

Michael Clayton, I'm guessing, is about to emerge as a major hit in a slow season, but I'm also guessing that a few viewers will resent the determined efforts in these opening scenes and in many that follow to consecrate Michael the white-collar shyster as an exemplar of contemporary suffering—and by extension to establish Clooney, of all actors, in the shoes of a character who is shaking in his knees and worried about his wallet, even as he shuttles around attempting (though mostly failing) to keep the corporate engines running. Moments like the equine bonding, which fumble for dramatic or psychological plausibility and seem strictly designed to stack a deck of sympathy in Michael's favor, lend themselves to a case against Michael Clayton. The confusing, almost listless web of family relationships, private worries, and embryonic subplots that quickly accrue around the protagonist can be annoying in their dogged insistence on evoking his unrest and begging for our sympathy, without taking particularly clear stock of what precisely worries Michael, or how much it matters, or how responsible he is for putting himself in these positions.

I enjoyed Michael Clayton and grew increasingly engrossed in its proceedings even as, on a second mental track, I kept compiling a list of its storytelling vulnerabilities and its lingering odor of self-satisfaction and hypocrisy. The filmmakers aren't just people with lots of money making a brazenly expensive-looking film about the ordeals of a "normal" person; even more than that, they have coagulated a distinctly privileged and frequently rule-exempt fellow to occupy this space of "normality," and they haven't always demonstrated a dab hand at knowing what a normal life looks and feels like: family birthday parties, estranged siblings, shared-custody rituals, the mean hydraulics of rising debt and faltering resources (to include the resource of personal confidence). The Bourne films, all of them adapted for the screen by Gilroy, do a more water-tight job of selling a total human anomaly as a surrogate for audience identification, not just because the storyline and the genre admit more generously of their entertaining artifice, but because the directors, Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass, maintain tensions in their editing, a fine touch in shaping character, and a brutal severity of narrative consequences that keep the stakes higher as well as clearer for Jason Bourne's decisions than they ever are for Michael Clayton's. Things go wrong for Michael several times. He blows some of his assignments so badly, like his first meeting with corporate laywer Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), and yet he suffers so little for his recklessness that the entire arc of the character's gathering endangerment feels subliminally insulated. Similarly, how many of us can waltz into our bosses' offices and ask for an $80,000 handout? And how many fewer of us will find that request gratified, with whatever strings attached? At times my worry for Michael resembled the way Survivor watchers fret for their favorite contestants without ever once entertaining the notion that anything truly drastic will befall them. The sleek design and the camera's doting on Michael's every ripple of worry also, occasionally, feel more like incubators protecting the character than swords of Damocles looming above him.

Clooney's casting is certainly a factor in these gnawing reservations and neutralizations. He doesn't act with the kind of flexibility or depth, and he certainly doesn't import the kind of star persona, that encourages us to worry for him. He does not or cannot show us the tipping point where nerves become full-scale fears, or palpable personal demons. His Michael Clayton amounts to a Roger Thornhill performance, minus all the cheesecake aplomb of North by Northwest, and I have never once, even within the bounds of suspended disbelief, worried for Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Watching Michael Clayton, I kept wondering what a different and less debonair actor might have lent to the script. Is this the serious role that has eluded Bruce Willis for so long, where his underappreciated thoughtfulness as an actor (and his late middle-age) might have synchronized at last with his taste for spy games and desperate hours? Could Dennis Quaid have played it with the spry but melancholic openness of his white-collar character from In Good Company, without hardening his face into that death's-head grimace that has plagued so many of his bids at high drama? Will we ever demur in our collective need for matinee idols and allow a Richard Jenkins or a David Strathairn to take center stage in a vehicle like this?

Michael Clayton casts about in so many mental directions and spins so many plates all at the same time that I can't feel too bad about doing the same thing in my chair, absorbing the movie while also rewriting and recasting it, and comparing my easy engagement with this vivid film against my niggling sense that something was amiss. In fact, the movie's very talent at evoking ambivalence, unsettling assumptions, and provoking thought—even when the thoughts are skeptical toward the film as often as they are admiring—finally secured my admiration. Because whether or not Michael Clayton cuts as deeply into modern malaise as it thinks it does or plays as honestly as it might by the fundamental axioms of its story and protagonist, the movie Gilroy has made from his script is commanding, rich in tone, skillful with mood, and productive of some dazzling highs. Clooney may not be the facile thesp that Jenkins or Strathairn is, and he may not have to work as hard to stay relevant as Willis and Quaid currently do, but he's sufficiently strong and self-aware as a performer to perfect a basic posture for Michael, somewhere in the middle-zone amongst anger, envy, intellect, fatigue, and mordant wit. He also seems to jive with Gilroy's strategy of muffling Michael, visually and temperamentally, so that our attention is almost always on his scene-partners. Tom Wilkinson ladles out his character's broken-spirit hysteria a little thickly, but he pulls things together for a terrific scene where he and Clooney are either reaching out to each other or threatening each other in a Manhattan side-street. Like Marcia Gay Harden's terrifying dumb show at the end of Mystic River, this culminating point redeems Wilkinson's otherwise shaky performance. His shining, sharp-edged, and bitter intelligence is a revelation after so much dither and Shiva-speak. Sydney Pollack, as the emblem of corporate complicity opposed to Wilkinson's martyr of roiling conscience, is as simple and true as he always is onscreen, especially when he's forced to suffer hypocritical characters like Michael who pretend they haven't made the very same compromises that he has. Pollack was superb in a comparable role in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, but he never got a line as deliciously impatient as, "This is news? This case reeked from Day One. 15 years in, I've gotta explain to you how we pay the rent?" The two actors playing hired guns of the corporate elite are unusually proficient and insinuating in basically mechanical roles.

I'll be accused of predictability and bias for singling out Tilda Swinton for praise, but she requires singling out, and not just because she's the only actor who fully reimagines the climate and the calculus of the script and replaces her character as written with someone of infinitely more facets, making Karen Crowder not just a foil or an antagonist but a tortured mirror of Michael's own push-and-pull predicaments between perceptions and realities, expectations and abilities. Most other actresses would have played Karen as a glacially formidable "bitch," akin to the Gina Gershon role in The Insider or the Sigourney Weaver part in Working Girl (minus, obviously, the farcical accents). Swinton, spinning gold from straw, unspools her entire performance from Michael's cruel and late-breaking line "For such a smart person, you really are lost, aren't you?" and thus plays Karen as a constant and quivering work-in-progress, rehearsing all of her speeches and gestures (and serving as her own severest judge), freezing and rebooting herself amid an abject fear that she's playing an untenable role, or playing the role poorly. Her mendacity is not inborn but desperately manufactured, minute by minute, and the performance is as fascinating as an autocommentary on acting as on white-collar performativity and narcissistic terror. (Costume designer Sarah Edwards and the makeup team abet Swinton's approach beautifully, running away from Miranda Priestly sangfroid and allowing Swinton to duke it out with ill-fitting jackets and a subtly meretricious dye job.) Swinton does some of her best acting alone, in hotel rooms and even in bathroom stalls, and without evoking more pity than her compass-less character deserves, she convinces us that even when Karen appears in public, she's still just stuck in the vise of her own fright and self-consciousness.

Still, beyond the sturdiness of the acting and the contemporary pertinence of its themes, Michael Clayton's deftness and power are rooted in its structure and its evocation of atmosphere. The film begins not with slow, silky exposition, but with 20 minutes of seemingly incongruous first impressions that manage the trick of shooting forward (Wilkinson's voice over) and sneaking slowly along (the depopulated, deflective shots of black-and-blue skyscrapers and brown-and-cream office suites). Red herrings abound, but they also raise the issue of whether Michael's life and, in a scary synonymity, his work life are made of anything but red herrings. The turning point in his investigations will pivot on a seeming red herring—several thousand of them, in fact, waiting around where no one is looking for them—and if the dramatic device feels a bit feeble, the idea that justice is hidden in plain sight and in such a mundane context rhymes both with the liberal-progressive dream of challenging existing power structures from unexpected peripheries and with the Pollack character's contention that the "revelation" or exposure of wrongdoing in this corporate context is dismally, almost absurdly easy. The movie bows out not with a resounding boom, despite a highly charged showdown that ends with a terrific deep-space shot of justice in action, but with a long, lingering epilogue where the film and its lead character catch their breath and question themselves. The cloud of who exactly are Michael's enemies and how many of them seem like his friends is never quite dispelled. Meanwhile, throughout this picture, catalyzed by Wilkinson's mad but heroic decision to stick up for the Little People, Gilroy refuses to sentimentalize this kind of "heroism" and only invokes the putative beneficiaries of Wilkinson's and Clooney's actions to the extent that we realize how irrelevant and essentially unassisted they remain, even in the final act. New professional maturities do not entail analogous breakthroughs in private life, and estranged family relationships mostly stay estranged, although hope is not lost, either, for a reconciliation here and there. Meanwhile, Wilkinson's ethical epiphany seems to arrive as a package deal with flustered, even salacious desires connected to a certain farmer's daughter (terrifically played by Merritt Wever) whom he flies out to New York for a special, secret visit and whom no one bothers to retrieve at the airport. Not since Steven Zaillian's underrated A Civil Action has a mainstream film about a corporate-legal ethical crusade fessed up to how little the most gratifying ending might actually impact the lives of average people.

Maybe that's why, for all its coddling of Michael and its nagging sense of superficiality, of unreality masking itself as "edgy" reality, Michael Clayton does come across, finally, as important, potent, insinuating. The movie worked for me in something like the way that I keep hearing Eastern Promises is supposed to work but has twice, for me, failed to accomplish: the stutters in the dramaturgy and the vagaries of the characters are more than compensated by the standout performances and, even more than that, by an unnerving world-picture that creeps in from the movie's edges. It's in the way Clooney's customary suavity is outsheened by the art direction, the way the light keeps pulling out the gray in his hair or the dark clothes keep jaundicing his skin in every other scene. It's in the terrified stupefaction of a room full of junior legal assistants when Michael storms in, inquiring after missing suitcases and rehearsing some convenient cover stories; his job description must be especially bewildering to them, as they transition from their idealized visions of law and business to their street sense of how it all actually goes down. It's in the equal but uncooperative truths in the statements "I'm an accomplice!" and "You are a manic depressive!" It's in Swinton's sculptural sense of how a certain rigidity in her jaw or contortion of her neck will transform a scene in one surgical blow, and the nearly seasick sensation of gliding with a single cut from this kind of economy to the dubious but finally affecting Renfield routine that Wilkinson unfolds. It's in the totemic way the movie keeps treating itself as a role-playing game, the dungeons of (un)due process and the dragons of capitalism drawing everyone into a lifetime of Realm & Conquest and prompting eager participants to actually believe that they are incarcerated victims. It's in the cavernous loft apartment where a legend of the profession reveals himself to have been living amongst little else but Ragu jars and bottles of dishsoap and stacks of obscure paperwork. Not everything works in Michael Clayton, and from moment to moment the movie is eminently prosecutable for cutting certain corners or eliding certain truths. But the movie hums along on a lot more engines than most Hollywood products even dream of firing up. At the very, very least—though I think the movie amounts to more—it's a memorable, involving step in the right direction. Grade: B

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Tony Gilroy
Best Actor: George Clooney
Best Supporting Actress: Tilda Swinton
Best Supporting Actor: Tom Wilkinson
Best Original Screenplay: Tony Gilroy
Best Original Score: James Newton Howard

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Actor (Drama): George Clooney
Best Supporting Actress: Tilda Swinton
Best Supporting Actor: Tom Wilkinson

Other Awards:
National Board of Review: Best Actor (Clooney)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Supporting Actress (Swinton)
Satellite Awards: Best Supporting Actor (Wilkinson; tie)

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