Saturday, May 17, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Michael Clayton (2007)

My mother-in-law and father-in-law are in town this weekend to visit Kathryn, Joel and me, so last night we all (except Joel, of course...) watched Michael Clayton (2007), a recent drama starring George Clooney as the titular character, a legal "fixer;" a janitor who cleans up messes for his firm's clients. In particular, Michael Clayton is assigned to clean up a mess left by his manic-depressive associate, Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), who was defending a corrupt agro-business (U-North) for marketing a pesticide that also happened to be - in Arthur's words - a "superb cancer delivery system." U-North is represented by Oscar Winner Tilda Swinton's character, an immoral attorney who eventually sends assassins after both Arthur and Michael in an attempt to silence U-North's accusers.

So - first things first - I enjoyed watching the film. But while I was watching it, I also paid close attention - for some reason - to how I was enjoying it. And suddenly, while viewing the movie, I began to realize that this was one of those films that is "good" and even "pleasurable" only in the absolutely predictable ways that it reinforces things you already believe. It moves the plot machinations in such a rote, familiar way that you feel sort of "happy" because you have to countenance nothing new or unexpected. It's like a roller coaster you've already been on a hundred times. The bumps, falls and curves are all old when you hit them, you smile...but you don't scream.

So in Michael Clayton, we are asked to understand that a big corporation, U-North is corrupt and greedy. (Didn't see that one coming did ya?). And that big, powerful law firms sometimes represent corrupt, greedy corporations for huge sums of money. (Another shocker!) And who is really surprised that Michael Clayton - a divorced, addictive personality (he's a gambler) - is going to stand-up for the little guy against his firm and the corporation? Now, I'm not belittling these points or ideals. I like to see the little guy fight City Hall and win; and I like to see evil corporations exposed. But this old chestnut is the stuff of Academy Award winning drama in 2007? This old, old, old, often-done tale of bad big business getting a comeuppance is the best of the best? All-righty then.

I'm sure it sounds as though I'm being condescending to Michael Clayton, but I'm not. It's just that I've seen this movie when it was A Civil Action and when it was Erin Brockovich. And, setting an extremely low bar here, the movie is "good" only if you're into comforting, reinforcing entertainment. I know, for myself, that there are moments indeed when films like this -- or the latest John Grisham adaptation for that matter -- go down just right. Like smooth vanilla ice cream. You know what I mean - you're not in the mood to be challenged; or even particularly active in your viewing. You just want to sit there in the cinematic bath tub and soak up the generic, nice-smelling bubbles.

At times, I felt that Michael Clayton sought to accomplish more than that, and I suppose that's why the film critic-within found something to be disappointed about at the end of the day. There's a remarkable "life synchronicity" moment that goes unexplained in the film, and I appreciated the dedicated ambiguity. This moment involves horses standing on a picturesque hillside, and the fact that the unusual image appears to Michael twice in the film. Once in the pages of an illustrated book; and the second time out his driver's side window during early morn. The fact that he sees this equestrian image saves Michael's life. But how and why this image should re-appear is unexplored. Is it God, trying to save his life? A coincidence? A synchronicity? Is Michael's son - who left Michael the book - psychic? In a film of stereotypically evil businessmen and equally stereotypically amoral lawyers, a moment as ambiguous as this one stands out as exceptional and special. It's a funny little symbolic grace note. And it has nothing explicit to do with the rest of the film.

Near the end of the movie, there's also a terrific overhead shot of two escalators moving automatically on opposite tracks, in opposite directions. On one, Michael Clayton is "going down;" and the other - abandoned - rolls up. The shot is lingered upon for a good long time, until you start to see all the possibilities, symbolic and otherwise of the staging. The set-up seems to suggest that Michael is headed one way; life in general the other. That - hero that he is - he's going against the grain; against the mechanical "business-as-usual" flow. Again, it's a better staging than the film's story probably deserves. Still...a good shot is a good shot.

I suppose it doesn't help the film either that Michael's valedictory speech and moment of anger ("I'm the guy you pay off, not the guy you kill...") is also the clip that was played most frequently when the film was being promoted. I had seen this scene in previews and reviews probably a dozen times, and since it serves as the movie's high point, it kind of falls flat in context. Watching it, I was suddenly reminded of Wayne's World and the melodramatic, false-emotional moment when the words "Oscar Clip" were flashed on the screen. That's precisely how the scene plays: an Oscar clip.

Which brings us to George Clooney. He doesn't bob his head as much here as he did circa Batman & Robin (1997) and that's a blessing. One time, just for kicks, Kathryn and I watched that Batman film on laserdisc (which I purchased for 99 cents) and counted how many times George Clooney bobbed his head. We stopped counting at over two hundred bobs. Seriously, Clooney has grown a lot as an actor and is very good here. I know he's involved in the project because his buddy, Soderbergh, is a producer, but I wonder why he couldn't see just how familiar and uninventive the movie's story is. I'm a big admirer of Clooney and Soderbergh's Solaris (which most people I know hated with a passion...), and there's more invention - more daring - in the first ten minutes of that film than there is in the entirety of Michael Clayton. That film is filled with interesting, rarely-expressed human truths (what my late mentor Johnny Byrne sometimes called the little verities) and I guess the antidote for Michael Clayton is Solaris.

Again, I had a really good time watching this movie. But my brain was on auto-pilot the whole time. How much you like this movie will depend on how you're feeling, I suppose. On a family night, it went down easy enough (but what I really wanted to watch - and couldn't - was Atonement...)


  1. Anonymous8:15 PM

    Hey John,

    Regardless of how predictable, every couple of years we all need to see the release of a new version of Erin Brockovich or A Civil Action. Non book-reading, film audiences need to be reminded every once in a while of the “true evil” in the world that’s sanctioned and protected by our legal system. (ie: unrestrained capitalism). I also thought there was an interesting spiritual aspect, not only with the horse stuff you mention but in Tom Wilkinson’s character without his Matrix inducing pills.


  2. Mike De Luca3:34 AM

    Tom Wilkinson delivers the performance of his career that would have won him Oscar gold had it not been for Bardem creating a certain "ultimate badass" and this is the best you can offer as far as critical feedback? Lame. Give me Clooney caught in a moral conundrum over "They're called boobs, Ed" any day of the week. Tony Gilroy's pacing and attention to human frailty and dialogue, coupled with Tilda Swinton's naturalism in delivering what could have been a conventional ice queen performance, delivers a nasty, bitter visceral kick that, in comparison, makes "Solaris"
    (which I liked) a bit of a minor, moody slog. This is Clooney's best performance, thoroughly underplayed to perfection. Referencing"Batman and Robin" is an obvious cheap shot.

  3. I thought Tom Wilkinson was amazing too. Actually, I think the movie would have been stronger if it focused more squarely on him and his dilemma. He was great (that opening monologue was very powerful indeed). I also agree that Tilda Swinton did a fantastic job.

  4. Wow.. you had some real Clooney fans on your comments page. Clooney is imo, a extremely overrated actor. His best performance is in 'Three Kings' as far as i'm concerned.

    Now a real cheap shot would have been you saying that his best performance was as Oliver in 'Return to Horror High'.


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