Monday, October 22, 2007


An Elixir for the Fixer

By Odienator
Michael Clayton begins with a long, rambling soliloquy and ends with the longest close-up in recent memory. The soliloquy is awful, but the close-up is fascinating.

The guy doing the Norma Desmond is Michael Clayton (George Clooney), the most financially successful member of the Clayton clan. The guy pulling the Hamlet is Michael's co-worker Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), a manic depressive who has gone off his medicine and gone native. During a deposition, Arthur gets butt naked and professes unconditional love to the plaintiff in his lawsuit. Unfortunately, he's on the defendant's side. Clayton, the law firm's "fixer" is assigned to bring Arthur back to reality, a thankless job he's done more than once. Arthur's latest outburst threatens to derail the lawsuit that has generated six years of revenue for the firm.

The character of Michael Clayton is like one of those movie psychics who can tell everyone's future but his own. In 17 years, Michael has had much success in fixing his firm's problems, but his own life could use two or three fixers. He's a divorced father whose son sees through him, the proprietor of a bar that's tanking and a compulsive gambler with an excuse for falling off the wagon: Michael hopes to win enough money to pay the debt incurred by his drug addicted, irresponsible brother Timmy (David Lansbury, the "fuck buddy" of Sex and the City). He's also in need of a new car, as the one he had been driving blows up 20 minutes into the movie.

After the explosion, Michael Clayton employs that ol' reliable screenplay trick, the extended flashback. Most of the film resides here and, like the aforementioned close-up versus monologue, it is visually interesting if not always narratively sound. Before the Clooneymobile "blowed up real good," Michael visits a client who ran over a jogger and left the scene of the crime. The client is angry when he is told by Michael that he's not the miracle worker his firm made him out to be. "I'm just a janitor," he states. "I tell you what you don't want to hear." This plotline is put on hold for the flashback, and then is conveniently forgotten about once we return to chronological order; it serves as the rare deus ex machina that's actually interesting to follow.

Michael Clayton has bigger fish to fry, however. The world is a corrupt place, from the wealthy guy who makes excuses for mowing down joggers to the chemical company who knew its product was deadly yet released it anyway. As part of his Arthur-fixing assignment, Michael meets with Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), the company rep Arthur represented before he auditioned for The Full Monty. She chews him out as expected, but he doesn’t realize just how sinister Crowder is. She has hired a shady organization to keep tabs on Arthur, bugging his phone and putting him under surveillance. Once Michael realizes Arthur is onto something, he gets ensnared in the stakeout as well.

Sydney Pollack shows up as Clayton’s boss, presenting a visual tie to the type of '70s filmmaking to which Michael Clayton aspires. Pollack’s been-there, done-that, of-course-our-client-is-corrupt attitude comes closest to the feel of some of the eponymous movies of that decade. Pollack brings an authoritative edge to his scenes; he’s completely believable as the head of the Firm (didn’t he direct that?). Pollack has bailed Michael out before, sort of a quid-pro-quo arrangement, and his tired expression when talking to Michael indicates that he’ll do it again before the film’s over.

I’d ramble on more about the machinations of the plot, but writer Gilroy is better at the dynamics of Michael Clayton’s personal relationships than how much trouble he’s in with the big bad chemical company. Clooney interacts with his cop brother Henry (Sean Cullen), his young son (Austin Williams), his co-workers, his brother’s bookie’s collector and Arthur. These scenes are interesting to watch unfold and some of the dialogue is better than it sounded when the film started. When focusing on Clayton’s interpersonal entanglements, director Tony Gilroy’s script rings true. Michael is tired, and he has blaxploitation disease — he needs just one big score to get out of the life. Whether he gets that score I won’t reveal, save to say that while the film’s climax is satisfying, it’s also rushed. All the loose ends and seemingly meandering moments pay off, but it’s cleaner than it should be.

The thriller aspects of Gilroy’s screenplay are the most problematic aspect of Michael Clayton. Yet some of his visuals and the performances he gets from his cast gloss over much of the clunkier developments. A major character is murdered in such a nonchalant way that it’s genuinely creepy. Several scenes are allowed to meander and play out, sometimes without dialogue, and that adds some suspense to the proceedings. As the film jumps from flashback to present, the film edits in different points of view and it’s fun putting the pieces together.

Tilda Swinton is perfectly cast in her standard role as enigma. She seems to play scenes so that they may be interpreted multiple ways. Early in the film, we see her shaking and sweating in the ladies’ room, and we also see her initial interaction with the surveillance/hit man organization. Is she really this naïve and nervous? Or is this an act? Why is she freaking out in the bathroom? Is it because she’s about to give the speech of her career or because she’s put a hit out on somebody? The believability of her last scene with Clooney hinges on how these prior scenes are interpreted, and Swinton is her usual blank slate, waiting for you to interpret what she’s doing. Though she has little screen time, she’s the most intriguing character in the film.

Clooney is believable as a tired lawyer whose house of cards is coming down around him (and he’s holding a losing hand in the poker room of that house). Every hair is in place and his suits are straight from the David E. Kelley section of Lawyer JC Penney’s. At the end of the film, he looks as neat and tidy as the film’s resolution, when he should be all Syriana-ed up. As he stares into the camera for at least three minutes, his face runs the gamut of different emotions as he thinks. Gilroy’s camera stays on Clooney so long that it becomes uncomfortable, but as I stared at him, I realized that this was the one time in the movie Michael Clayton could breathe easily. It cost him his soul, but the fixer was finally fixed.

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