George Clooney is one of those actors who have trouble turning off the charm. Cary Grant was another one, and Clooney's starting to look like Grant in his silver-fox period. In both cases, there's something about the carriage; they look like they were born in tailored suits. Clooney has put his genetic endowment to good use in the Ocean's Eleven movies, where he plays a guy who glides through life like a very expensive car. And he puts it to good use in Michael Clayton, where he plays a guy who tries to glide through life in a company car - a very expensive company car, mind you, but one he'll never own. Written and directed by Tony Gilroy, who also wrote or co-wrote the Bourne movies (there was dialogue?), Michael Clayton is another moral-dilemma tale where someone without much of a conscience slowly develops one. And despite looking as handsome as ever, Clooney shows us exactly how much that costs.
He's Michael Clayton, a senior counsel with the prestigious New York law firm Kenner, Bach & Leeden. And if "senior counsel" sounds impressive, what it really means is that Michael, after 17 years with the firm, still hasn't made partner. Why? Well, it might have something to do with the fact that he went to Fordham Law School instead of Harvard or Yale. Or it might have something to do with the fact that he's a gambling addict. When we first meet Michael, he's at an all-night poker game a few floors below street level. Then his cell phone rings. One of the firm's clients has been involved in a hit-and-run accident. Michael's needed out in Westchester as soon as possible. To prepare a defense? No, to keep from having to prepare a defense. For Michael's no ordinary trial lawyer, he's a fixer or, as he prefers to call it, a janitor. When clients get in trouble, he comes in and starts cleaning up the mess.
There's a nice scene early in the movie where Michael, standing in the kitchen of the man who committed the hit-and-run, lays down the law. The perp isn't used to being treated like anything other than a Master of the Universe, and it's fascinating the way Clooney plays it - respectful but firm, with subtle hints of obsequiousness and disgust. Michael is damn good at his job; he knows just how to grease the wheels of power. But the moral compromises are starting to pile up, and life is about to put the squeeze on him. Michael Clayton is a bit of a throwback, a Sidney Lumet-ish legal thriller that shows us the moral rot that runs through a city's entire infrastructure. Justice, in this case, goes to the highest bidder. And lawyers are less interested in verdicts than in billable hours. The question is, how do you participate in such a corrupt system without winding up covered in sleaze?
The answer is that you start blowing whistles, which is what Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) does to set the main plot in motion. One of the firm's fiercest warriors, Arthur has spent the last six years under siege. The large agrochemical company he's defending got slapped with a $3 billion class-action suit that neither the company nor the law firm wants to go to trial. But the farm families devastated by a weed-killer that the manufacturer either did or didn't know was carcinogenic won't take "wait" for an answer, and Arthur has started to crack under the strain. That he's also gone off his manic-depressive meds may have had something to do with his removing his clothes in the middle of a deposition and running after one of the plaintiffs, a freshly scrubbed lass from America's Dairyland. But is Arthur crazy or is the rest of the world crazy? Michael gets sent in with his broom and mop.
Law firms make strangely satisfying settings for thrillers - all that leather and mahogany, all those opportunities for blurring the boundary between legal and not so legal. Gilroy keeps things rather spare and modern. There's a shot of Michael standing in his office, looking out the window, taken from outside, and it could be the 10th floor or it could be the 110th floor. He's a cog in a machine made almost entirely of glass, and he's about to start throwing rocks. The script applies some pressure by having him owe $75,000 for a bankrupt restaurant he's invested in with his ne'er-do-well brother - $75,000 he doesn't have. And it applies some more pressure by making his law firm a couple of negotiating sessions short of a merger with another law firm. The weed-killer thing needs to be handled very delicately, which means that Arthur is going to have to be convinced to keep his shirt on...or else.
As the screws tighten, Clooney allows his face to sag, his eyes to go a little blank. It isn't a great performance, but it isn't a movie-star performance either. And when his slow burn does finally reach the boiling point, he throws everything he's got into the line "I don't give a shit!" Wilkinson, as a guy who's gone not-so-quietly bonkers, has been handed several nonstop yammering routines, which must be like catnip to an actor, but he manages to keep it all within the realm of plausibility. Somewhat less plausible but nevertheless enjoyable to watch is Tilda Swinton as the agrochemical company's general counsel, a woman in a man's world who's so unsure of her role she has to rehearse her lines in her bathroom mirror before heading out to conquer the world. She's acted the part so long that the part's starting to act her.
Michael Clayton isn't a masterpiece or anything; Gilroy is still more a screenwriter than a director. But it's a solid piece of work that accumulates power as it goes along, so that it actually means something to us, late in the movie, when Michael says to Arthur "I'm not the enemy" and Arthur says "Then who are you?" A good question. He's the janitor, but the real mess he needs to clean up is himself.