Sunday, February 24, 2008

Michael Clayton

"This keeps getting better and better"

Michael Clayton is not himself today. A lawyer for the firm of Kenner, Bach and Ledeen, he finds himself at 45 and the end of his rope without a knot, deep in debt, estranged from family, and very aware that that whooshing going by his Mercedes window is his life and he doesn't have much to show for it. Then he gets a phone call. "Arthur Edens just stripped down naked in a deposition room in Milwaukee." As its the firm's biggest case at the moment with billions on the line, he has to go fix it.

That's what Michael Clayton does. He has little to do with the law. He's a fixer. Need a fast consult? He does it. Need palms greased? He does that. Tickets to the big game? Scored. A leaning story in the press? Not worth a thought. "I'm not a miracle worker," he says to a rich client who's just run over a jogger in one of his cars. "I'm a janitor." And his territory is the moral sludge that he must wade through on a daily basis

"I'm not the enemy here" he tells his friend Edens, who's off his meds and has broken down to a Howard Beale-ish moral clarity that is legally inconvenient. The madness drops from Edens' eyes. "Then who are you?"

That's the question. And at that point, to say any more would be spoiling one of the best, deepest and engaging drama-thrillers to come down the aisle in a long time. Supposedly, when Clooney saw this script by Tony Gilroy he wanted to direct it, but deferred to Gilroy who probably saved this screenplay for himself. One of the better script doctors, it was his work on the "Bourne" series of films that made his name, and his directorial debut crackles with the same precision he brings to one of his unaltered screenplays. Just to allay Warner Bros. fears, the film is top-heavy with directing talent: Clooney stars and produces, Steve Soderbergh and Anthony Minghella are on the production side, as well as Sydney Pollack (the film feels like a Pollack project) who pulls off a career-best performance as the law partner on top of all the chaos. Michael O'Keefe makes a welcome return to films as the firm's "asshole" (I wonder if its on his business cards), and Tom Wilkinson's Edens--babbling, disheveled, isolated, walking around in a pure light that only he knows is there--is the showiest part, has the best lines and the actor throws off his customary restraint and relishes the opportunity. Tilda Swinton is all contained paroxysm as an outwardly smooth CEO whose veneer of respectability is as thin as that of the chemical company she heads. Then there's the Clooney, all-furrowed, with a Raymond Burr hood over his eyes, hating himself and everything he's doing. His one moment of respite has all the subtlety of a burning bush.

And then, things get interesting.

"Michael Clayton" is a full-price ticket.

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