Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Tom Wilkinson has been a professional actor for over thirty years, tho it’s only been in the last decade that he’s been rightfully acknowledged as one of the best character actors of his generation. Often he plays fairly buttoned-down types, so it’s a special pleasure to see him cut loose in Michael Clayton, Tony Gilroy’s film of corporate suspense, in a role fit for a somewhat older Philip Seymour Hoffman. Wilkinson is a top trial lawyer for a firm that specializes in defending sleazeball corporations, this time a food-processing conglomerate called uFront. It’s a class action that has been dragging on for years because it involves the death of many a Midwestern farmer, and, in a deposition in Milwaukee, Wilkinson’s character, who is bipolar in addition to being a “killer” litigator, has gone off his meds & goes over the edge, stripping naked in front of the teenage girl he’s in the process of deposing, as well as two teams of astonished attorneys. Almost lost in the chaos that ensues is the little detail that Wilkinson’s planning to give the plaintiffs the smoking gun memo that will seal the fate of his client.

Wilkinson’s bread scene – you’ll know which it is instantly – is an actor’s master’s class, given here by one of the greats. Wilkinson’s isn’t the only outstanding performance in this film, which comes oh so close to actually working, the other being Tilda Swinton channeling Carly Fiorina as the corporate counsel for uNorth, overwhelmed at trying to contain the damage created by Wilkinson, trying too hard to be ruthless in a job for which she doesn’t feel qualified. I would say that this is one of Swinton’s best quirky acting roles ever, except for the fact that I’d probably say that about almost all of her characters over her career – she is one of the very best actors alive and is completely brilliant here. Watching her face half-hide a million rapid-fire emotions is one of the very best things about Michael Clayton, which as I said comes oh so close to working.

Michael Clayton is Tony Gilroy’s first directorial credit, having made a successful career writing thriller screenplays – the Bourne trilogy most notably – and he does a decent job with his own script, or at least with his actors, as the story gets away from him. The first thirty minutes of the film are simply terrific as it spins out so many narrative threads without picking them up in any predictable fashion that the viewer’s head feels ready to burst just keeping track. That’s my kind of fun and, at this point, I was completely taken with this film. What follows over the next 89 minutes doesn’t entirely fulfill the promise of this opening sequence, and that really is the tale of Michael Clayton.

The title role of course belongs to George Clooney, who knows that a movie star’s first task is to be himself regardless of his character, which function he performs admirably in somewhat difficult circumstances. What George Clooney does best is smile – his grin has made him very wealthy & very famous – but Michael Clayton is a character with very little to smile about & Clooney dutifully tones it down a notch. Clayton is a fixer for the law firm employed by uNorth, something of a protégé to Tom Wilkinson’s character, the person dispatched to handle “messy” personal situations that can get in the way of client relations. Indeed, the first part of the film has him being dispatched up to Westchester to aide a client who has just committed a hit-&-run of a midnight jogger out there in the ‘burbs. His job is to hold the customer’s hand and get the best possible local criminal defense lawyer there before the police show up at the front door. In this case, the customer is a jerk with serious anger management issues who wants to blame the victim. Clooney is having none of this and lets the customer know it. On his way back, he stops to look at a trio of horses under a tree on a hill. As he stands staring at the horses, his car explodes.

That’s the basic set-up and a lot to handle right there. On top of this, we have a plot about a failed restaurant, Clooney’s gambling addiction – seventeen years with a top law firm & he’s at risk to being jacked up by loan sharks over a relatively small debt – his relationship with his brothers (one a cop, the other a druggie) and his son Henry, whom he drives to school tho he doesn’t live with the mother. Add to this the corporate plot lines & you have far more than Gilroy can control. The scenes with the family – without fail – are sodden & sentimental, yet they turn out to be crucial in setting up what will become the final plot-twisting finale. On the one hand, major plot lines never get resolved – remember the guy with the hit-&-run – while others tie off so neatly that you can see the big narrative bow: ne’er-do-well lawyer succeeds by relying on family / family values trump murderous corporate prerogatives. Yeesh.

Clooney actually does a decent job here, but it’s an impossible circumstance. He’s never quite desperate enough for his circumstances because desperate isn’t something George Clooney does. His awkwardness in the family scenes is only half because of the narrative context being presented. The result is a picture that leaps into another dimension whenever Wilkinson comes on screen during its first half, whenever Swinton is on screen mostly in the second. The other notably good role here belongs to Sydney Pollack of all people, as the head of Clooney’s law firm. Pollack is invariably irritating whenever he acts, but here Gilroy milks it for dramatic effect. It’s another of those little touches that make this film a fine time to watch actors as the narrative heads south.


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