May 15, 2008

Movies for Grown-Ups: Michael Clayton

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

Michael Clayton (2007)
Written and directed by Tony Gilroy

You know what I love about George Clooney? Here's what I love about George Clooney; that just like all actors in history, he too has his strengths and weaknesses, but unlike many other actors he's actually willing to acknowledge them, and to purposely seek out smart projects that play to what he naturally does well instead of what he naturally does badly. Because let's face it -- what drives most of Clooney's fame is the fact that he's an extremely good-looking, silver-haired white guy, and if he wanted he could've built an entire lazy but lucrative career on that, playing an endless series of charming attractive doctors and other white-collar professionals just like he did on television's "ER," the first role to make him a big star. Instead, though, Clooney has gone out and consistently challenged himself, while still being smart enough and self-aware enough to mostly pick the right scripts for him -- see, for one excellent example, his now six-film collaboration with visionary director Steven Soderbergh, and how Clooney seems to just somehow know that this particular director always brings out the best in him. His resume may be dotted with the usual Perfect Storm crap that you would expect from a good-looking silver-haired Hollywood leading man; this is more than made up for, though, or at least in my opinion, by such maverick and sometimes outright experimental projects as Solaris, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Syriana, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and a lot more.

Michael Clayton

And thus do we come to the 2007 corporate thriller Michael Clayton, the directorial debut of veteran screenwriter Tony Gilroy (Dolores Claiborne, Proof of Life, all three Bourne films and more), a movie that seemingly came out of nowhere last winter to scoop up a whopping 60 industry award nominations and 10 wins, including seven Oscar nominations (among them a Best Picture nod) and an Oscar win for supporting actress Tilda Swinton. And let's face it, in another set of people's hands, the premise behind this liberal-friendly message movie would've turned into a schmaltzy pulp alarmingly fast, one of those fabled "Oscar bait" disasters that in its zeal to be as earnest as possible ends up delivering an unwatchable mess; and I think a lot of "George Clooney types" in Hollywood are eager to take such crappy Oscar-bait roles, which is why every late autumn we seem to be inundated yet again with a whole series of them, just in time for the full-page "For Your Consideration" ads in Variety. But this is why Clooney is Clooney, see, because Michael Clayton isn't that, isn't that at all; it's instead one of the smartest screenplays I've seen in a long, long time, one that gets not only all the details right but almost every single solitary beat of the entire film, one that resists the urge for the heartstring-pullingly obvious at every turn and instead tries to defy our expectations as much as possible. It was a real surprise, to tell you the truth, a movie I had only rented so that I could cover last year's awards season as fully as possible here at CCLaP, bracing myself for a sappy ridiculous Erin Brockovich experience but finding a real gem instead. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I love about George Clooney.

Michael Clayton

So where even to start with how this movie defies the usual expectations? Well, how about this -- that even though the movie ostensibly centers around that most beloved of all liberal message-movie themes, the Evil Corporation Defending Itself In A Lawsuit Against Sick Children, almost never do we actually see a sick child in Michael Clayton, and not even once do we see a sick child on a witness stand while stirring string music plays behind them, hacking up a lung while a frantic judge bangs his gavel and calls for Order! I WILL HAVE ORDER IN THIS COURT, DAMNIT! No no, instead this movie is about a very quiet, very independent lawyer on the payroll of the firm representing the Evil Corporation, the eponymous Clayton of the movie's title, a "corporate fixer" who never does anything illegal as part of his job, but definitely takes on the worst and morally stickiest emergencies the firm's various clients face. (Want a good example? Just watch the brilliant opening of this film, where Clayton is called to the New York countryside in the middle of the night because of a rich white executive who thinks he might have hit a jogger with his car, who then becomes furious as only a rich white executive can when Clayton announces that he can't immediately fix the situation.)

Michael Clayton

But then here's where Gilroy defies expectations again; because instead of Clayton growing to despise his industry like the usual message-movie would have him do, he instead vigorously defends the employer/employee relationship to the end, claiming that even if you grow to have ethical problems with a particular company, you still finish out the job they hired you to do to the best of your abilities. That's what drives the central conflict of this film, which gets just a little complicated -- see, Clayton has this mentor at the firm (Arthur Edens, played by British character actor Tom Wilkinson), currently the lead chair for the Sick Kids Lawsuit, who's had a mental breakdown in the past that was quietly hushed up, but has stopped taking the anti-psychotic medication he's supposed to be secretly taking each day. As a result, he has recently flipped out at a deposition, tearing off his clothes and running naked through the parking lot; the majority of the movie follows Clayton's attempt to track down the now-escaped and wandering non-medicated Arthur, while accidentally discovering as well that there are more and more ethically shady details to the Sick Kids Lawsuit, and more and more reasons to believe that their clients have been breaking the law the entire time.

Michael Clayton

This is what's so interesting about this film, though, is that Clayton has absolutely no pity or admiration for his crazy former mentor in this situation, even when it comes out that in his non-medicated fugue he's started secretly gathering evidence against their own clients; Clayton is instead profoundly disappointed and angry at Arthur for this turn of events, constantly questioning why he didn't just do the prudent thing instead, stay on the meds and turn in this evidence to the proper authorities, just like as officers of the court they're supposed to. It essentially takes some of the wind out of the usual sails of this genre, which is why I find it so intriguing; unlike most message-movies, Michael Clayton doesn't push for a worldview that sees one side as wrong wrong wrong and the other as right right right, but rather acknowledges that we live in a complicated world and that the entire concept of ethics is an ephemeral thing.

Michael Clayton

How Gilroy hammers home this message, then, is not through the usual escalating tension of the plot itself (although this plot does feature a lot of escalating tension), but rather by delving deeply into the character side of the script, and especially highlighting all the moral weaknesses even our hero possesses. Because when all is said and done, what we ultimately learn about Clayton is not very nice -- he's a pretty serious gambling addict, a borderline sociopath, a man with very little patience for what he perceives as the weaknesses of others, all of which makes him an excellent corporate fixer but not exactly the nicest human being you'll ever meet. But then again, the whole reason he's in such straits these days is because he had financed his black-sheep brother's plan for a restaurant last year, which of course fell apart because of his brother's drug problems and general loserdom, a situation that has put him in deep debt but that he never complains about or even really mentions to others. But then, is Clayton doing this ultimately so that he can experience that smug sense of self-satisfaction from it all? Knowing that he's not only morally stronger than his brother but also most other people in general for not even bringing up the subject?

Michael Clayton

It's a complex, ambiguous screenplay, as you can tell, one that takes us all over the map from an ethical standpoint; from the out-and-out monstrousness of true villain Karen Crowder (the aforementioned Oscar winner Swinton, playing an amalgam of every single ex-boss I've ever f-cking had), to the almost Greek Chorus-like role taken on here by Hollywood veteran Sydney Pollack (who was also this film's producer). Oh, and then there are all the details...all those glorious little details that give Michael Clayton that final little bump it needs into brilliance. Like -- Arthur's rambling, religiously-themed monologues when he's off his meds; like the way he mixes up the lawsuit in his addled head with the World Of Warcraft-like game enjoyed by Clayton's son; like the sense of quiet and reserve that both Gilroy and Clooney maintain throughout the film at all times; like the crisp minimalism of this film's cinematography; like that unforgettable last shot that elegantly evolves into the end credits, giving us a silent and long look at Clayton that tells us more about him than a dozen pages of dialogue ever could. This is what Clooney is so good at, of subtly showing the simmering darkness just under the surface of our society's authority figures; like the best of good-looking leading men throughout history, he can tell us more with a shrug or a smile than many others can in an entire movie's worth of acting.

Michael Clayton

As you can tell, the film gets a huge recommendation from me, a movie which would've easily won the Best Picture Oscar if it had been released in a weaker year. (And speaking of which, by the way, what was with all the great movies that suddenly came out at the end of 2007, after something like half a decade of crap? Are the studios as a whole finally starting to learn something about a post-corporate, post-blockbuster Hollywood, or was it just a coincidence?) Do yourself a favor and pick up Michael Clayton as soon as you can.

Out of 10:
Writing: 10
Acting: 10
Directing: 9.8
Cinematography: 9.8
Overall: 9.9

Next on my queue list: "2007 Award Winners" week continues next Tuesday, with my review of the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men, winner of this year's Best Picture Oscar.

Read even more about Michael Clayton: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:49 AM, May 15, 2008. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |