October 4, 2007

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Michael Clayton (R)
Fixer George Clooney is sent to straighten out Tom Wilkinson, a colleague gone nutters, in the corporate thriller Michael Clayton, a movie which is only a little too long and just a bit ponderous.

Michael Clayton (Clooney) is to the world of Connecticut mansions and multi-national corporations what Harvey Keitel’s The Wolf was to Pulp Fiction — he fixes things. Though not cleaning up cars after a careless hitman, Michael does attempt to clean up legal messes, such as a wealthy man’s hit-and-run accident or the defense of a giant agricultural company in a lawsuit. In that particular case, Michael is called in to handle the fallout when the lawyer heading up the case, Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), strips naked during a deposition and runs babbling into the parking lot. Arrested for indecent exposure and taken to jail, Arthur is no more coherent when Michael goes to see him later. Has this manic depressive gone off his meds or, as some of Arthur’s ravings insinuate, is he having some kind of crisis of conscience over the case he’s been working on?

Michael is convinced — or maybe chooses to believe — it’s the former and tries to tell the client, personified by company executive Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), that all of this will blow over and the case will move forward they way they hope it will. Karen, however, is not convinced. Obsessed with her job and pleasing the man who got her to her lofty position, Karen sees doom everywhere and, after her first meeting with Michael, begins to take dramatic steps to ensure that one man’s streaking won’t be her company’s undoing.

This tale of corporate sleaze is set against the gray and weary picture of Michael Clayton’s life. He’s divorced, making him more of a visitor than a full time dad to his son. He has a barely-under-control gambling problem — in his structured and buttoned-up life is he seeking something reckless and unmanageable? He’s in dire financial straits, not because of his own problems but because of his brother’s drug addiction, which has led him to liquidate the bar he owned and still has him owing unscrupulous characters. He makes money and is valued by his firm but he’s a behind-the-scenes figure, not a partner and with no accrued wealth or stability. He is, as he’s told by Arthur and others, a janitor and Michael seems to be aware that a continuation of this grim work might be the best possible future he can hope for.

As the problems with Arthur deepen and Michael’s charge to “fix it, contain it” become even more impossible we see in him a desire to do something right. Massive forces move against Arthur and Michael clearly wants to keep these same powers from turning against him but, in his shadowy, lonely life, what can he hold on to?

The Truth.

OK, you’re groaning. That’s OK, I groaned a little. This movie is somewhat obsessed with the idea of The Truth and the omnipotent Them that are going to keep it from you and manipulate you and poison your crops and, oh, heck, go to war for shady reasons. (The movie never gets to the war part but it’s there, like a sexy, smile-created eye crinkle on Clooney’s handsome face, just waiting to show itself.) There is plenty of subtext about Big Guys looking to crush even amoral little guys like Michael Clayton. But don’t let yourself become totally distracted by the movie’s desire to Say Something Important about The Times in Which We Live. Because under all that Oscar-moment hooey is a pretty decent airport novel-style thriller. It’s John Grisham without the irritating accents and heavy-handed storytelling. (Also without the shoehorned-in love story, thank God.)

Michael Clayton is at its best when Michael Clayton get pissed off, worked up and annoyed with the people around him. I can live without speeches with bigger meanings but I thoroughly enjoyed the times when Clooney got to throw around his best “what the hell is wrong with you people” and “don’t make me come back there” looks.

The other big fun in this movie is to be had when Tilda Swinton is on the scene. She is pure twitchy evil. She’s the kind of person who launches forth armies because she’s afraid to not do so would get her in trouble. Like vice principals in high school, she’s her firm’s heavy but she’s also nervous that her every action — her every word, as we see in a scene where she prepares for an interview — will be “wrong” and get her on the bad side of her higher-ups.

Michael Clayton gets revved up without quite launching itself, adding our frustration to that of the characters. But it doesn’t give us easy resolutions or predictable characters either, making it a puzzle worth sticking with. B-

Rated R for language including some sexual dialogue (also it’s unlikely that anyone not old enough to see an R movie would sit through this). Written and directed by Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton is two hours long and will open in limited release including in the Boston area on Oct. 5 and in wide release on Oct. 12. It is distributed by Warner Bros.