Fixer-upper

sarris michaelclayton3h Fixer upperMICHAEL CLAYTON
Running time 119 minutes
Written by Tony Gilroy
Directed by Tony Gilroy
Starting George Clooney, Tilda Swinton

Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton is the best kind of star vehicle, one that expands a star’s range and enriches his career, rather than one that merely exploits his screen charisma for a formulaic project. George Clooney plays Michael Clayton, a onetime hot-shot litigator who now prospers in a role that his unscrupulous employer describes as that of a “fixer,” but one which Michael prefers to designate with a degree of self-denigration as that of a “plumber” called upon to clean up one mess after another. Michael also has something of a gambling problem, and is perilously in debt over some ill-advised business ventures. As the picture begins, Michael seems to be a deeply troubled man, but he is not close to a breaking point until he is sent to Milwaukee to rein in a friend and colleague, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), who has apparently suffered a nervous breakdown while negotiating a settlement for a lawsuit involving one of the firm’s biggest clients, an agrichemical giant, whose chief counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), is a ruthless manipulator and shameless narcissist.

For most of the film, Michael tries to serve his employer, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), and salvage his friend Arthur’s career amid his increasing doubts about the whole system in which he is enmeshed. These doubts make for a moody characterization in a shadowy world, expressed by Mr. Gilroy with a deliberate pacing and a grayish mise-en-scène.

Still, Michael never rushes to judgment or action until the suspicious death of his best friend, Arthur, and his own near-assassination drive him at last to decisive behavior. Michael’s last shots are those of a still puzzled and contemplative character bemused by the evils he has almost accidentally exposed.

Mr. Clooney gives a fully articulated, thoughtfully modulated and exquisitely nuanced characterization of a contemporary careerist with only a trace of moral scruples, but just enough to enable him to safely escape the quicksand of universal corruption. Michael Clayton is consequently a grown-up picture for grown-up audiences. Mr. Wilkins, Ms. Swinton and Mr. Pollack provide sturdy support for Mr. Clooney. And Mr. Gilroy, whose previous writing credits for the Bourne series earned him his assignment for this, makes a singularly impressive directorial debut.