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Michael Clayton

Nicola Mostyn considers Clooney as Clayton

Published on October 1st 2007.

Michael Clayton

Given the title, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a film based on real events. Actually, that’s just a neat way of distinguishing the movie from all those other corporate conspiracy films and of focusing your attention firmly on the lovely George (Evil Knievel) Clooney.

Clooney pulls it off, but while the audience seems urged to believe that Michael Clayton is about the man, and not just this diabolical cover up, it just doesn’t convince.

Clooney is Clayton, a fixer at a megabucks corporate lawfirm, a “janitor” or a “miracle worker”, depending how you look at it: either way he makes messy situations disappear. Clayton is the best at what he does - so far, so movie-by-numbers - but rather refreshingly he isn’t what you’d call a success. He’s seventy five thousand dollars in debt after a failed restaurant venture; he has a gambling habit; he’s divorced; he looks knackered and he’s stuck in a job which is morally mucky.

So things are bad enough when he gets a call about friend and colleague Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), who has been working for years on a huge case refuting the terrible effects of a weedkiller owned by agricultural giant U/North. Edens, Clayton hears, has gone crazy, rejected his duty and started waffling on about the real meaning of life. Dangerous talk for a lawyer, even one who’s not running around butt naked in a car park.

Given that this is a film about lawyers, the charmlessness of most of the characters is a given, putting us directly on the side of bonkers old Arthur whose manic depressive episode, the film dubiously suggests, has fortuitously awoken him to the wickedness of his daily grind. Drawn in to straighten out the situation, the world-weary Clayton vacillates between secretly agreeing with Arthur’s take on their money-grubbing world and trying to get him back on his medication so he can borrow some money off his boss. He’s settled on the latter until U/North’s in house attorney Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinson) gets involved, events take a turn for the menacing and we see that murder can be just as businesslike a clean up job.

Michael Clayton is the directorial debut of Tony Gilroy (screenplay writer of The Bourne…series) and it’s a surprisingly solid, straightforward venture. Beginning with Arthur’s babbling, panicky breakthrough/down, it follows Clayton through his troubled life, hits a dramatic crescendo, then flashes back four days to fill in the blanks. This is as tricksy as it gets. Visually un-showy and even-paced, the complications are limited to plot: since corporate law is a business founded on half truths and lies (and since there are so many types of lawyer), it’s unclear, for half the film, exactly who is doing what and how it all fits. Patience is eventually rewarded as the pieces are brought together and even this patchwork approach seems to conceal what is, at core, a very simple film.

Wilkinson is wonderful as the brilliant, yammering lawyer transported by his epiphany and, in the opposite corner, Swinson is magnificently scary and repellent as the lawyer who has replaced her morals and humanity with soundbites and lies. A process which seems to be breaking her down like a faulty machine.

To the extent that Gilroy has managed to create the Clayton character, Clooney pulls it off, but while the audience seems urged to believe that Michael Clayton is about the man, and not just this diabolical cover up, it just doesn’t convince. Clayton’s personal life, though it gets plenty of screen time, adds little to the film and the scenes with his son in particular feel added soley to facilitate a plot point connected to Arthur’s ‘quest’.

Ultimately all of the tricks – the title, the confusion, the family sequences and especially the strange closing credits- seem to be pleading with the audience to consider Michael Clayton as something other than it actually is: a solid, enjoyable corporate thriller, the like of which we’ve seen many times before.

Michael Clayton (15) is on general release
Rating: 6/10

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