Sunday, September 30, 2007

"Michael Clayton" -- * * *

In addition to functioning as yet another example that George Clooney can do no wrong, Tony Gilroy's "Michael Clayton" is an engrossing throwback to the "trust no one" thrillers of the 1970s (i.e.: ones where the villains were either the government or big corporations). The film's old-fashioned sensibilities are to its detriment as well as benefit, but more often than not it serves as a refreshing antidote to the adrenaline-fueled actioners that our ADD-afflicted generation is used to.

Our title character, played by the Clooney, isn't quite a lawyer--I don't think at least-- but a fixer-of-sorts of problematic legal situations (he describes himself as a janitor). We're introduced to him in the midst of a poker game where he gets a call that a man who just fled the scene of an accident needs his help. After driving to the estate of said man (Denis O'Hare) and his wife (played by Julie White, who, if I recall, doesn't get any dialogue), Clayton explains that he'll be of little to no help with the situation. He gets in his car, drives for a bit before pulling over, gets out of his car and gazes intently a pack of horses just in time for his car to blow up. The rest of the film will diagram the four days leading up to this event.

In the midst of an important 6-year-long multi-billion dollar lawsuit, leading prosecutor and legendary litigator Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) seems to have lost it, when in the middle of a deposition, he strips off all his clothes and begins professing his love for the plaintiff, the first sign of a combination of crisis of conscience (he harps on his guilt over defending a deadly weed killer) and mental breakdown. At risk of having their very important case depleted further by Arthur's antics, as well as Arthur losing his partnership, his firm calls in Clayton (who's desperately in need of the money), disciple of Edens, to fix the situation. All the while, mysterious blonde men with guns are listening in on Arthur's (and Michael's) phone conversations, while frequently checking in with Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), who seems to functioning as the other side's Clayton-like figure.

If this all sounds more than a bit complicated, it is. "Clayton" plays vague with story details at first , leaving us to figure out exactly going on while things are already in motion. However, unlike "Syriana," which this will no doubt be compared to, here things get clearer as they go along, and audiences probably won't be complaining about the story being too confusing (though I'm still not totally clear on the particulars of the case). This doesn't have the lofty aspirations, nor politically relevant intentions, of that great film, so while it isn't as resonant or weighty, it's also not as intimidating or convoluted.

Gilroy's (making his directorial debut) no-frills style of filmmaking is more of a plus than a minus, but it occasionally allows the proceedings to lapse into tedium, and there are moments where they feel rather dry. The story doesn't have any particular lulls, but one really shouldn't expect anywhere near the momentum of the "Bourne" films (all of which Gilroy scripted). However, perhaps Gilroy felt that the story was complex, and overloaded with detail, enough, that camera tricks and flashiness would only distract. His straightforward direction allows us to absorb everything that's going on, as well as lending certain scenes power that otherwise would've felt familiar or overdramatized. There's a fast, efficient death/murder scene midway through that's so much more disturbing and unsettling due to the lack of any music or dramatics.

Gilroy should be commended for opening "Clayton" with a device that grabs you from the film's title being displayed on the screen. Over shots of empty offices, we hear a voiceover of Arthur's increasingly nonsensical ramblings, being left as a voicemail on Michael's cell phone. He also makes a wise decision in closing the film on a bittersweet note reminiscent (at least in my fractured line of thinking) of "The Graduate" and "Clerks II," a mix of satisfaction and feelings of "what did I just do?"

The cast here is solid all around, always keeping your attention in even the moments where the story might not be. Wilkinson is quite good in what is probably the showiest work he's ever done. An actor who usually specializes in subtlety and internalization, he gets a chance to basically play "crazy dude" here, and he even gives this manic-depressive who's gone off his meds profound moments of sadness and introspection.

Swinton is very strong as a woman who has to be responsible for the dirty work that her job entails, but at the same time is just a woman doing her job. Swinton doesn't play her as a typical villain at all, and it's an interesting portrayal of the all-powerful, high-confidence power player, reeking of insecurity underneath. It seems as if half of her scenes consist of her looking into mirrors practicing her speeches and making sure her business suits look okay on her.

But, as is to be expected, this is Clooney's show all around. As a cool, collected player thrown into a situation he doesn't know what to do with, Clooney as usual avoids any sort of overdramatics, but always gets across Clayton's desperation and internal conflicts over what he does (there's a fantastic scene of him telling his son that he'll grow up to be a good person and not be burdened by his father). While I admit I expected Clayton to be morally ambiguous than he was-- he never actually veers into 'unlikable' territory-- it's still refreshing to be given a central character who doesn't sleep well with what he's asked to do, and given significant dimension.

Those who are always complaining there isn't enough fare in theaters for "adults" would do well to venture a look at "Michael Clayton" when it heads into multiplexes a week and a half from now. It may not be flashy or overbearing enough to make a dent at the box office, and possibly a bit too intelligent (I admit a second viewing will be required to catch some things that flew over my head), but it's a solid, gripping little film that treats its audience with respect.

"Michael Clayton" opens this Friday in New York and Los Angeles, and nationwide on October 12th.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Actor (George Clooney), Best Supporting Actor (Tom Wilkinson), Best Original Screenplay (Tony Gilroy)
Clooney has a very tough field to contend with, and I fear the combination of his performance's subtlety, this film earning lots of like but little love, and his recent Oscar win might result in him sitting this one out. We'll have to wait and see about Wilkinson's chances, but he's quite good and the role's showy enough to at least get it on their radar.


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