Running Time 119 minutes
Written by Tony Gilroy
Directed by Tony Gilroy
Starring George Clooney, Tilda Swinton
I’ve been spending so much time at film festivals hither and yon that it’s time to get back to the real world. Not that there’s anything real about George Clooney’s new vehicle Michael Clayton, but at least it’s slick, superficial Hollywood hokum with minor but passable wentertainment value that doesn’t require subtitles. (It’s also so confoundingly incomprehensible that a homeowner’s manual would be a great help.) So proceed at your own risk, and because it’s George Clooney, you probably will.
Set in the boring world of New York’s corporate law firms, Michael Clayton marks the feature-film directorial debut of Tony Gilroy, who wrote the confusing but popular Bourne Supremacy/Identity/Ultimatum spy-flick trilogy. He directs the way he writes: with a high-tech staple gun instead of a camera, blowing logic, characterization and narrative coherence to hell. Let’s see if I’ve got this right. Michael Clayton (Clooney) is an in-house “fixer.” That means a guy assigned to clean up the messes the firm’s important clients get into. I’ve talked to several people in powerful New York law firms who don’t know what that means (in those glass-box offices high above the canyons of the city where lives are sold and money is lost every day, everyone is a “fixer”) so I don’t feel as dumb as I thought I was, and this movie seems less superior than it pretends to be. Anyway, for the sake of the director’s creative pomposity, Michael is a former prosecutor from a family of cops whose once-promising career has sunk so low that he sweats bullets trying to hold together a job, have a relationship with his son, and keep the peace with a controlling ex-wife. Begging for salary advances and auctioning off the contents of his home to make ends meet, he still can’t pay off his gambling debts. Burned out from running interference from coast to coast, he hates his work but can’t quit because he’s broke. Half of the litigators he knows are on antidepressants, and one colleague (the excellent Tom Wilkinson) has already gone off his meds, stripped naked in the middle of a deposition, and run through a parking lot screaming. This movie will make you think twice before sending your children to law school.
Dispatched to Milwaukee to find his bipolar office mate with the manic meltdown, Michael discovers he was in the middle of trying to solve a $3 billion class action suit against an “agrochemical manufacturer” called U/North that was accused of killing its employees with the equivalent of germ warfare. The cold, lock-jawed U/North attorney that hired Kenner, Bach & Ledeen is Tilda Swinton, operating at the top of her sangfroid skills. Hired to reluctantly clean up corporate garage spills, Mr. Clooney is called a janitor. When Mr. Wilkinson’s character goes nuts and disappears, it’s a case of one janitor cleaning up after another janitor. He’s got to negotiate with Ms. Swinton or lose his law firm $9 million in legal fees, find the missing co-worker, win the case and figure out what any of this has to do with his 10-year-old son’s passion for a fictional fantasy novel called Realm and Conquest. Michael Clayton is 45 years old, bankrupt, his life in shreds, and he’s got one week to come up with $80,000 or end up on the bottom of the Hudson River courtesy of a gang that makes the Sopranos look like tooth fairies. Discovering the client’s products cause cancer, Michael decides to betray U/North and sabotage the case, putting the future of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen at risk. But wait, there’s more. We discover Kenner, Bach & Ledeen’s CEO (Sydney Pollack) has known everything all along, and everybody is betraying everybody. Meanwhile, Michael’s alcoholic brother loses his entire business investment in a bar, Mr. Wilkinson’s murder is written off as a suicide and the clues in the Realm and Conquest book lead to a field where Michael gets out to admire a field of beautiful stallions from his dreams and his car is blown up with a bomb planted by—your guess is as good as mine. Meanwhile, the movie introduces scores of tertiary characters, none well-defined or explored carefully enough to sustain interest; miraculously, Michael discovers his own conscience and saves the world from cancer, crooked lawyers and incoherent screenplays.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, you’re actually ahead of me, because I gave up trying to figure out this gumbo ages ago. Michael Clayton literally knocks its brains out trying to be clever, but it ends up being the same kind of smart-alecky filmmaking most of Mr. Clooney’s movies are famous for. (Who could forget the loathsome Syriana, the unsalvageable Solaris or the idiotic O Brother, Where Art Thou?) He’s capable of so much more, as the great Good Night, and Good Luck proved beyond debate. A man this suave, smart and fiendishly witty would undoubtedly make a great restaurateur, but his cinematic taste—in scripts, directors and movies that stand a chance to still be considered classics in the next century—really sucks.