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Kyle Smith (Twitter: @rkylesmith) is critic-at-large for National Review, theater critic for The New Criterion and the author of the novels Love Monkey and A Christmas Caroline. Type a title in the box above to locate a review.

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    Review: “Michael Clayton”

    By Kyle | October 4, 2007


    Kyle Smith review of “Michael Clayton”

    118 minutes/Rated R (profanity)


    An “Erin Brockovich” stuck in Midtown traffic, the earnestly obvious George Clooney legal drama “Michael Clayton” promises, in its sweeping and chilly opening shots, to take us inside the dens 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 squads 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. Consider the uproar that greeted the news 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’s why the evil lawyers in this movie, who at one point send out a clinically efficient killing team that will 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 like 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 resentful underachiever, who has every motive to take down his betters and none to play for the team, on its payroll. In a 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 pass along a phone number.

    When you make a guy a partner, you make him part owner, so he can’t light a match without burning himself. That’s one excellent reason corporate lawyers tend to go up or out: partner or pavement. Plus, 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 phony figure in the halls of power because it needs to bounce him off its earnest little ideas about corporate evil.

    Clayton’s friend and colleague (Tom Wilkinson), who has spent the last six years of his life defending an agribiz 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, then goes out for a dash in the snow with his junior partner dangling in the breeze) and starts muttering about his “vision quest.” He has decided to turn on his own firm and help the little guy win the case.

    So: the crazy people are the truly sane ones. Does this sound more like a complex 70s thriller or a dizzy 60s dream?

    We’re in the last third of the film by the time Clayton tells us flat out that the nutter knows best, meaning the movie has taken over an hour to catch up to what the audience figured out at the start.

    Clayton is supposed to be a morally troubled figure. Clooney desperately wants to play complicated–that’s how you win Oscars–but either he can’t control his need to be noble or  the script, by first time director Tony Gilroy (who co-wrote all three “Bourne” movies) can’t manage character shadings. Maybe the answer is both: Clooney’s previous resume in serious movies suggest a hero complex, while Tilda Swinton’s blandly sinister, ultimately idiotic lawyer in this movie–we know nothing about her except that she likes to try on clothes and talk to mirrors–suggests a lack of writing subtlety. 

    Clayton’s worst traits are that he needs a shave, which far from making him look like Danny De Vito merely leaves him slightly more rugged, and that he likes to play poker for money. He’s also involved in a dull subplot about how he needs $75 K to pay for a failed restaurant. A little guy who looks more like a junior high school vice principal than a loan shark keeps noodging Clayton, who looks like he could raise that much just by selling a couple of his plush designer overcoats. Why would a guy this smart and well-connected deal with shady characters? Hasn’t Clayton ever heard of Citibank? 

    In the 1970s, Michael Clayton might have been played by a Nicholson or a Hoffman, but those actors would have relished wearing the dented halo of an anti-hero. Nicholson would have demanded that his creation 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 churns in the heart of its title figure. “Michael Clayton” is not interesting. 

    Topics: Movies | 2 Comments »

    2 Responses to “Review: “Michael Clayton””

    1. Hollywood » Review: “Michael Clayton” Says:
      October 5th, 2007 at 9:58 am

      […] Ken Evans wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptAn ”Erin Brockovich” stuck in Midtown traffic, the earnestly obvious George Clooney legal drama “Michael Clayton” promises, in its sweeping and chilly opening shots, to take us inside the dens of big-time corporate law right here on … […]

    2. J. Grantham Says:
      January 23rd, 2008 at 2:19 am

      Finally, a review of this movie that hits it on the head. This film is getting Oscar nominations? Really? It’s a retread plot with enough just-plain-stupid elements that leave you thinking you just wasted 2 hours of your life. Kyle, this is your first review of yours I’ve read, but I’ll be checking your opinions before wasting any more of my time with movies that other mindless critics (90% on RT) hail as “great”. Your review mirrored exactly the thoughts I was having as this movies ended.