There’s a scene in Michael Clayton in which George Clooney quickly must break through a door dividing two hotel rooms. In a lesser movie, one shoulder to the door would do the trick. But in Michael Clayton, which opens today, Clooney doesn’t have it so easy. He kicks and struggles and utilizes the scene to display a man who can't seem to make things right in any part of his life.
Tony Gilroy, writer of the Bourne movies, makes his directorial debut, and he has crafted a spectacular film. The characters are complex, with just enough backstory to understand who they are. The plot unravels in a way that keeps us craving more. The acting across the board is top-notch. It’s not an over-the-top thriller crammed with unbelievable twists and turns, but that's a good thing. Michael Clayton is exactly what a legal-drama should be.
Clooney plays a powerful, New York law firm’s fixer named Michael Clayton, the “janitor” who soaks up the mess whenever there’s a problem. He has a gambling addiction. He has family issues. When we first meet Clayton, he seems uninterested in helping an important client who has just been involved in a hit-and-run. Then Clayton’s Mercedes Benz explodes without anybody in it.
Flash back four days earlier, and the firm — headed by Marty Bach (an always-reliable Sydney Pollack) — is trying to settle a $3-billion class-action lawsuit against its client U North, a company whose “deadly weed killer” has caused tissue damage in hundreds of people. Clayton’s good fri/files/storyimages/and coworker Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson, The Last Kiss, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has been on the case for six years, but once he starts jeopardizing the whole thing — and once Clayton can't get him under control — U North's general counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton, The Chronicles of Narnia) will do anything it takes to shut Edends — and eventually Clayton — up.
These are all gripping performances. Wilkinson plays a manic-depressive, and at times we think he’s a man who has lost his marbles and won’t take his medication. But Wilkinson also has the ability to make us believe that he’s on to something greater. Crowder is chilling as a ruthless lawyer with a PR-friendly smile who may be questioning her own choices. Don’t be surprised if both actors generate supporting role Oscar buzz.
And don’t be shocked if Clooney gets a nomination for best actor. He won the supporting actor Oscar for Syriana, and he’s even better here. Even when Clooney is riding alone in an elevator, his face exudes the emotions of a defeated man trying to make at least something right. Because for a man having problems with so many things, fixing one of them is a good start.