Self-effacing, quick with a joke, and refreshingly unpretentious, George Clooney is Hollywood's happy-go-lucky poster boy these days. He tosses off lighthearted fare like Ocean's Thirteen just because he enjoys doing it, and then he does something like Michael Clayton to remind us that, holy crap, the guy can ACT, too.
Clooney's face is out of focus on the movie's poster, a symbolic representation of his title character, a "fixer" for a high-powered law firm who's undergoing an identity crisis. His duties at the firm of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen are vague but apparently valuable. Early in the film, when a heavy-duty client is the perpetrator in a hit-and-run accident, it's Michael Clayton they send in to advise and control him. Crisis management is Michael's specialty, but already we can see that the ethical vacuum he works in is getting to him. When the hit-and-runner, who is clearly guilty and too rich to believe he should get in trouble for it, complains that Michael isn't giving him enough help, Michael replies, "I'm not a miracle worker. I'm a janitor."
As we learn when the movie jumps back to four days earlier, the reality of his job -- someone who cleans up rich people's stupid messes -- has only just begun to weigh on him. He was hustled off to Minneapolis after a friend and colleague, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), went off his meds, lost his mind, and stripped naked while taking a deposition. Arthur has finally reached his own breaking point, having realized he's wasted the last several years of his life defending a chemical company against a huge class-action lawsuit that, were there any justice in the world, the company would pay every penny of. Arthur can't take it anymore, and in his half-sane, I've-just-seen-the-light zealotry, he urges Michael to get out, too.
The chemical company, United Northfield, is upset that the man Kenner, Bach & Ledeen sent to help them is crazy, which is why Michael has been dispatched to smooth things over. The company's in-house counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), is not impressed by Michael's razzle-dazzle routine ... and frankly, Michael isn't too impressed with himself, either. His slowly building disillusionment over the last who-knows-how-many months has been brought to a head by Arthur's behavior. Furthermore, as he picks up the case where Arthur left off, he finds evidence that Karen Crowder and her company may be guiltier than he thought, even guiltier than most giant corporations that pay millions in attorneys' fees to avoid billions in settlement fees.
Michael's personal life has been all but swallowed up in his devotion to the firm. He is divorced. The restaurant he tried to open with his deadbeat brother has failed, putting him in a major financial bind that is particularly humiliating for him, given his unlimited expense account and millionaire clients. He has struggled with a gambling addiction. He is unhappy and haggard for most of the film, always looking like he hasn't shaved for exactly two days. Considering Clooney's public persona as a carefree, contented bachelor, it's jarring to see him so clearly miserable. (See? Acting!) It's also a little exciting; because we get the sense that Michael Clayton is not going to tolerate his own glumness for much longer. He's a fixer, and he's going to fix things.
Michael's angst is existential (as in "Who am I, what do I stand for?" Yada yada...). But the film -- written and directed by Bourne trilogy screenwriter Tony Gilroy -- is gritty and plot-centric, too. As Michael juggles his ethical quandaries, his friendship with Arthur, and his investigation into the United Northfield case (which involves people being poisoned by their products), we get the satisfying revelations, twists, and double-crosses that we expect from a legal thriller. Think of it as a classier, more introspective John Grisham story.
Clooney's performance is bolstered by first-rate turns by Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, and Sydney Pollack. The latter plays Marty Bach, Michael's boss at the law firm, who has long ago come to terms with the moral gray areas of his work, not to mention the out-and-out black ones. Is Michael a company man through and through, or does he have limits, the way Arthur Edens turned out to? That's the central question hanging over Michael's head in this tasty mix of crowd-pleasing action and whip-smart storytelling.
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Eric D. Snider (website) isn't a fixer so much as a breaker. A breaker of hearts, that is.