By Kyle | October 4, 2007
Kyle Smith review of “Michael Clayton”
118 minutes/Rated R (profanity)
AnÃ‚Â “Erin Brockovich” stuck in MidtownÃ‚Â traffic, the earnestly obviousÃ‚Â George ClooneyÃ‚Â legal drama “Michael Clayton” promises, in its sweeping and chilly opening shots, to take us inside the densÃ‚Â of big-time corporate law right here on Sixth Avenue in New York City.
Instead it presents a laughable caricature where smoking-gun memos sit on everyone’s desk and legal work consists primarily of phoning up hit squadsÃ‚Â to eliminate anyone who knows too much.
Lawyering is both too complex and too subtle to make you grip your armrest, which is why “A Civil Action” was such an impressive film.Ã‚Â Consider theÃ‚Â uproar that greeted the newsÃ‚Â that Hewlett-Packard obtained cell-phone records merely to find out who was leaking to what reporter. Onscreen, a page full of numbers doesn’t get you where you need to be, even if George Clooney is the one reading them. You need car bombs. That’sÃ‚Â why the evil lawyers in this movie, who at one point send out a clinically efficientÃ‚Â killing team that willÃ‚Â leave no trace of its actions–leaving an unsettling impression that these guys could be everywhere–inexplicably reverse course and start blowing stuff up in broad daylight likeÃ‚Â Vinnie from Bensonhurst.
Clayton (Clooney) has a nebulous job at a big corporate law firm. We see him handling immigration issues, a divorce case and even checking up on some minor crime in Florida. After 17 years at the firm, Clayton hasn’t even made partner and never will, plus he hates himself. He’s “a janitor” who cleans up messes, and just so you get the point the script repeats the metaphor three more times.
Naturally the firm keeps this resentfulÃ‚Â underachiever, who has every motive to take down his betters and none to play for the team, on its payroll. In aÃ‚Â prologue meant to establish his expertise in covering up messes, Clayton drives from New York City to Westchester in the middle of the night–to passÃ‚Â along a phone number.
When you make a guyÃ‚Â a partner, you make him part owner, so he can’t light a match withoutÃ‚Â burning himself. That’s one excellentÃ‚Â reason corporate lawyers tend to go up or out: partner or pavement. Plus,Ã‚Â a law firm filled with masters of the universe would have little use for such a nickel-and-dimer, but the movie simply drops this phonyÃ‚Â figure in the halls of power because it needs to bounce him off itsÃ‚Â earnestÃ‚Â little ideas about corporate evil.
Clayton’s friend and colleague (Tom Wilkinson), who has spent the last six years of his life defending an agribizÃ‚Â corporation that has been literally poisoning the wells with nasty chemicals, goes crazy with much actorly brio (we’re told that he strips naked in a deposition, thenÃ‚Â goes out for a dash in the snow with hisÃ‚Â junior partnerÃ‚Â dangling in the breeze)Ã‚Â and starts muttering aboutÃ‚Â his “vision quest.”Ã‚Â HeÃ‚Â has decided to turnÃ‚Â on his own firmÃ‚Â andÃ‚Â help the little guy win the case.
So: the crazy people areÃ‚Â the truly sane ones. Does this sound more like aÃ‚Â complex 70s thriller or a dizzyÃ‚Â 60s dream?
We’re in the last third of the film by the time ClaytonÃ‚Â tells us flat out that the nutter knows best, meaning the movie has taken over an hour to catch up to what theÃ‚Â audience figured out at the start.
Clayton is supposed to be aÃ‚Â morally troubled figure. Clooney desperately wants to playÃ‚Â complicated–that’s how you win Oscars–but either he can’t control his need to beÃ‚Â noble orÃ‚Â the script, by first time director Tony Gilroy (who co-wrote all three “Bourne” movies) can’t manageÃ‚Â character shadings. Maybe the answer is both: Clooney’s previous resume in serious movies suggestÃ‚Â a hero complex, whileÃ‚Â Tilda Swinton’s blandly sinister, ultimately idioticÃ‚Â lawyer in this movie–we know nothing about her except that sheÃ‚Â likes to try on clothes and talk toÃ‚Â mirrors–suggestsÃ‚Â a lack of writing subtlety.Ã‚Â
Clayton’s worst traits are that he needs a shave, which far from making him look like Danny De Vito merely leaves himÃ‚Â slightly more rugged,Ã‚Â and that he likes to play poker for money.Ã‚Â He’s also involved in aÃ‚Â dull subplot about how he needs $75 K to pay forÃ‚Â a failed restaurant. A little guy who looks more like a junior high school vice principal thanÃ‚Â a loan shark keeps noodging Clayton, who looks like he could raise that much just by selling a couple of his plush designer overcoats.Ã‚Â Why would a guy this smart and well-connected deal with shady characters? Hasn’t Clayton ever heard of Citibank?Ã‚Â
In the 1970s, Michael ClaytonÃ‚Â might have been played by a Nicholson or a Hoffman, but those actors would have relished wearingÃ‚Â theÃ‚Â dented halo of an anti-hero. Nicholson would have demanded that his creationÃ‚Â get to kick a dog once in a while; Hoffman would have turned his guy into a scary neurotic or a geeky paranoid. To be interesting, “Michael Clayton” would have to leave some doubt about what churnsÃ‚Â in the heartÃ‚Â of its title figure. “Michael Clayton” isÃ‚Â not interesting.Ã‚Â