Cleaning up is a messy business.
How It Rates: ***
Starring: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack, Michael O'Keefe
Red Flags: Language, Brief Violence
It's ironic that a lawyer good enough to fix troubled cases isn't good enough to run a bar or take out everybody at the poker table, but that's exactly the world of Michael Clayton, a talker-thriller that hits an occasional dead spot, but still effectively leads us through a slimy tale of corporate law. What it has to say isn't earth-shattering -- scummy corporations rely on big-shot lawyers to twist the truth -- but it says it in a compelling, tension-filled movie.
The title character (Clooney) is a self-described "janitor," a legal eagle at a huge New York firm who cleans up messes for clients outside of the courtroom. An opening scene has him advising a valued customer who's just committed a hit-and-run accident, telling him exactly what his options are in a hard-reality demeanor. Clayton has a precise method, refined over many years and many cases, with an answer for just about anything and a knowledge of the system. However, he can't seem to fix his own problems, including the aforementioned bar. He has some semblance of a family life, including a son from a previous marriage, but it's more procedural than heartfelt as he ferries the child with him on some of his rounds.
He is also unprepared to face his toughest assignment yet: damage control in a multi-billion dollar class-action lawsuit. Clayton's firm represents agricultural conglomerate uNorth, which is facing a lawsuit over deaths from a weed killer, and the case could collapse after the lead defense lawyer on the case, Arthur Edens (Wilkinson), suffers a breakdown during a deposition. Edens strips off his clothes and runs naked through a parking lot, part of what he calls a "moment of clarity." Clayton is convinced Edens is off his medication, but in the process of trying to save him and the case, Clayton learns his colleague found damaging evidence against the ag company. At the same time, uNorth's lead counsel, Karen Crowder (Swinton) is playing fixer herself. She's unconvinced Clayton can get the job done, so she turns to a pair of men who repair cases in ways more akin to the CIA.
I like watching George Clooney. He speaks with a cool-headed this-is-how-it's-gonna-be directness reminiscent of his Danny Ocean roles. Sydney Pollack is also compelling as one of the firm's partners, even though it still seems like he's playing yet another riff on his George Fields agent character from Tootsie. Michael Clayton is told partly in flashback, setting up a key moment and then replaying the events leading up to it, but I still didn't understand all of the nuance or significance of the key moment, when Clayton gets out of his car and runs up a hill to where three horses are standing. We also get some parables from Clayton's son, a fantasy-book buff who keeps talking about a novel filled with lost and cautious characters who don't know why they're in the community they're in. It's not hard to make the link to Clayton... or Edens.
Overall, Michael Clayton is well-acted and well-executed, but it doesn't say anything prophetic, not like A Civil Action did some years ago. And Eden's raving lunacy doesn't measure up to the Howard Beale of Network. Perhaps in the ashes of Enron, Tyco, WorldCom and other corporate mega-scandals, Michael Clayton isn't showing us anything we haven't already read in the papers.