January 22, 2008

Michael Clayton

A high quality, well performed, smartly written legal thriller. Michael Clayton takes a familiar template (Common Man versus Evil Corporation via Lawyers) which we've seen executed to varying degrees of success (Class Action, Erin Brockovich, A Civil Action) and adds a new twist. All the intrigue and drama is between the lawyers who are all on the same side of the case: the lawyers at the enormous, agribusiness UNorth (I was thinking Archer Daniels Midland) and the law firm which is defending them against a multi-billion dollar class action. We never see the plaintiffs' lawyers, and we barely see the plaintiffs themselves.
The lead lawyer representing UNorth, Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), who has been trusted with UNorth's secrets, who has been trusted with UNorth's very destiny, has gone off the rails. He goes off his meds (literally) and suddenly jeopardizes the future of both UNorth and the firm he works for. What will UNorth's paranoid and manic general counsel (Tilda Swinton) do to preserve her company?
George Clooney is Michael Clayton, a supremely useful "cleaner" who can fix any legal entanglement. Clayton turns into a detective, using his own personal skill set to solve the crime and the cover-ups at the heart of the story, all while being surveilled and opposed on two sides. My wife pointed out the similarities to the movie of The Fugitive, where Dr. Kimble has to solve his wife's murder with his skills as a doctor, while being pursued on two fronts.
In the past, I have noted that George Clooney the actor has some mannerisms which he falls back on as crutches. I noticed in this film that he has grown as an actor- some scenes displayed heretofore unseen depth of character. We can thank his character for this: Far from the fast-talking slick con man of the Ocean's Eleven movies, Michael Clayton the attorney is just a cog in a machine, broke and powerless, at the mercy of his loan shark and his boss. His moment of epiphany, in a pasture with some horses, is a little silly, but Clooney brings his best stuff, and I can see why he's been nominated for Best Actor. Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson are both nominated too: Wilkinson's manic lawyer has some rambling monologues, but I think he gets the nomination because voters pity his character. Tilda Swinton is brilliant as the paranoid, manic, insecure general counsel whose identity is so wrapped up in her work that she loses all perspective.
This is the directing debut of screenwriter Tony Gilroy. Gilroy is best known for adapting the three Bourne movies. For every moment which cleverly presented multiple ideas at once, there were a series of sequences, especially in the last half hour, which held our hands far too much. Gilroy did a great job of overlapping dialog from one scene with images from another: the sequence where Swinton is preparing her speech for the recording of a Electronic Press Kit, combined with the taping itself, takes half the screen time as the two scenes separately, and is twice as powerful. Then in the third act, Gilroy becomes incredibly deliberate and obvious with every character and plot moment, as if a couple old ladies in the preview screenings got puzzled and raised their hands during the Q&A.
Michael Clayton is nominated in six of the top seven Oscar categories: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actress, and Supporting Actor. I am a little surprised that a "genre" movie, admittedly a very well executed genre movie, has turned into such a big deal. The movie as a great pedigree: Clooney, Wilkinson, Swinton, producer and co-star Sidney Pollack, plus producers Anthony Minghella and Steven Soderbergh, have all been nominated or won Oscars before. Composer James Newton Howard is nominated for Best Score for the fifth time (one of those previous four was for The Fugitive).
THEATER NOTES: Last night, sitting in the theater while waiting for Juno to begin, we watched two pairs sixty-something friends spontaneously run into each other in the theater, as if they go to the movies on weeknights all the time. I whispered to my wife "that's going to be us someday", meaning "we'll spend our retirement going to movies on weeknights and meeting our fellow retirees". She replied "we already are them!" Good point, 'cause guess what: On our way out of the 6:30 screening of Michael Clayton, we ran into our friends Tom and Amy in the lobby. They were on their way in, to see the 8:45 show of the same movie.