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Michael Clayton

The film opens with the voice of a man urgently telling a story. It's an explanation of sorts and the meaning of which we won't fully appreciate until much later in the film. Similarly, a shot of a woman lawyer (Tilda Swinton) sweating profusely in a bathroom stall is initially unclear in its meaning. We also get a quick introduction of Michael Clayton (George Clooney), a lawyer who's been called in to "fix" a problem with a very rich and very important client who's just left the scene of a hit and run. Clayton has been described as a miracle worker, but he considers himself little more than a glorified janitor cleaning up other people's messes. But Clayton is about to find himself in the middle of a mess. We get a hint of the severity of that mess when his car blows up and he's nearly killed.

George Clooney and Sydney Pollack in Michael Clayton (Warner Brothers)

Now the film flashes back to four days earlier. Lawyer Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has had a very public breakdown during depositions on a multi-million dollar class action law suit. This is yet another case for Clayton. But this time, it's close to home. Clayton and Edens have a history together, and both their careers could be ruined if things don't go their way.

Michael Clayton, like the recent The Invasion and the upcoming Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and Things We Lost in the Fire , begin with a grabber moment --- like a tease open for a TV show -- and then move back in time in order to move the story forward. This kind of jumbled narrative structure used to be innovative, now it is so commonplace that a straightforward, linear narrative seems like the experimental exception rather than the rule. Gilroy's fragmented story doesn't necessarily work better out of chronological order, but Gilroy was probably smart to begin with physical danger in order to try and hook the audience because the bulk of the story plays out in a slow, deliberate manner.

The film is essentially a legal thriller that explores the familiar terrain of a big corporation that doesn't want to take responsibility for a faulty product and mismanagement. We've already had Francis Coppola's The Rainmaker and Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich , among many others, tackle similar cases. The difference here is that Clayton is no crusading lawyer trying to help a victim. He's an insider guilty of his own questionable ethics.

Gilroy and his star Clooney work with great diligence to try and suck us in to their drama. There's a strong sense of craft, yet the film lacks innovation. It's like an essay that's grammatically correct but lacks inspiration. I can't put my finger on exactly what goes wrong, but there's a spark that's missing and that's necessary to kick it up a notch from being merely a passable thriller to being a great one.

Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton (Warner Brothers)

The strength of the film is Tom Wilkinson's performance as a bipolar lawyer who stops taking his medication and has an epiphany of sorts. Wilkinson conveys both the madness and the intellect of his character. In one scene, Edens is rambling about some kind of fairy tale, but when Clayton makes a veiled threat, Wilkinson allows Edens to go cold sober in a flash. In that moment, Wilkinson lets us see Edens mind return to sharp focus as he lashes back at Clayton. It's a brilliant scene acted to perfection by Wilkinson. Tilda Swinton as a chilly corporate lawyer also delivers. The scenes in which her character preps for a "performance" are great. Clooney gives a solid performance as Clayton, but it feels too familiar, as if the subtler shadings of the character were never fully worked out.

Since the film is titled after Clooney's character, you expect the film to provide an in-depth portrait. But Clayton, like his image in the poster, remains a little blurred. We are repeatedly told what a miracle worker he is yet we never see him doing much effective work. For someone who's supposed to be able to fix things, he seems to lack certain people and communication skills that would seem vital. There are a lot of stock elements to his character: gambling problems, good-for-nothing brother, a marriage gone wrong and a young son he's trying to impress. And maybe because he's played by a likable celebrity such as Clooney, the film wants to see him come out on top even if that seems an unlikely scenario.

Michael Clayton (rated R for language, including some sexual dialogue) is a competent film, and it reveals promise for Gilroy. Yet it's not a film that I can get excited about recommending. It's a hard-working film that's very serious about what it's doing, but this approach grows monotonous and feels one-dimensional. For something a little more fun, check out Clooney's lawyer in the Coen Brothers' Intolerable Cruelty .

Companion viewing: The Rainmaker, Intolerable Cruelty, Female Perversions, Separate Lies -----

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