Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Michael Clayton

Everything about Michael Clayton is as boring as that title. I guess all the really good, generic legal thriller names - Witness for the Prosecution, Class Action, The Firm, Wetness for the Prosecution - were already taken. (As was Good Time Slim, Uncle Doobie and the Great San Francisco Freakout.)

Jason Bourne Trilogy screenwriter Tony Gilroy's directorial debut would have to do a trailer full of meth just to be considered somnambulant - it's dirge-like from the first moment to the last. This is a standard-issue, by-the-numbers bit of Hollywood lawyerism masquerading as a radical Statement of Principles, like an early version of the Port Huron Statement drafted by John Grisham. It's just...odd. And did I mention, boring?

I'm reminded in many ways of Fernando Meirelles' overblown spy vehicle The Constant Gardener, though at least that film had a pulse. Obvious observations ("Corporations are greedy!") pass for probing insight, trite cliches pass by unquestioned, and even the basics of the narrative are eventually discarded in favor of overwrought platitudes. I mean, seriously, I know the film wants to make some kind of an actual, relevant point, but does this necessarily mean that the plotting must be so half-assed and haphazard? Some of the events in the final third of Michael Clayton just make no sense, which would hurt the film even if it actually had something to say.

The titular Clayton, played by George Clooney at his square-jawed blankest, is a "fixer" for a large, respected Manhattan law firm. The details are not spelled out, but he seems to largely deal in problems clients would prefer to keep entirely outside of the legal system - hit and run accidents, mistress troubles, that sort of thing.

One of Clayton's close friends, actual lawyer Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), suffers what looks like some kind of mental break in the midst of a deposition. While defending Agro-conglomerate U/North against an ongoing $3 billion class action suit, he interrupts sworn testimony, undresses and professes his undying devotion to the plaintiff, a young farm girl.

In the course of "cleaning up" Edens' collapse, by special request of partner Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack, reprising his charming Society sleazeball character from Eyes Wide Shut), Michael ends up with some information that could bring down a whole lot of trouble on U/North. So the company's head legal counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), sends a couple of goons to keep and eye on him.

If Clayton were a brash Southern attorney rather than a Yankee legal burnout, Grisham could sue Gilroy and win. The film doesn't just echo, occasionally, J.G.'s trademark style, it seems to intentionally ape his sensibilities at every single goddamn turn. The very basics of the plot itself - the put-upon farm family suffering the consequences of corporate greed, the blasé seen-it-all corporate cog suddenly growing a conscience, the shrill harpy female executive with bigger balls than all the guys in the room...there's nothing new to see here, folks.

What's surprising is the ego on display, the sense that this movie is groundbreaking, goddammit, even if it's working directly out of Joel Schumacher's mid-'90s playbook. There's minimal-to-no flourish, even though it's theoretically a thriller about a lawyer on the run from all manner of suspicious, lethal characters. Gilroy's direction is stately throughout. Colors are washed out and cold. It's like he wants us to be bored, like he's testing our resolve. There's something deeply wrong, almost comically incorrect, about a movie this familiar with such a pretentious tone.

The film opens with its best-written scene - Wilkinson' s Arthur reciting a monologue in voice-over. He's leaving a message on Michael's answering machine. At first, it sounds like some kind of an insane rant punctuated by overly-obvious, somewhat theatrical symbolism - an anecdote in which he's crossing the street and is suddenly overcome with the feeling of being coated in amniotic fluid, then feces. As the story progresses, a theme emerges from the yammerings - Arthur feels as if he has wasted his life, selling his time to corporate villains, and now the stench of their misdeeds has tainted him forever.

Gilroy's film seems to sympathize with these sentiments (who wouldn't?) and, in many ways, Michael's journey throughout the rest of the film mirrors Arthur's in these opening moments. And yet, the portrayal of Arthur as either a man-child or a delusional crazy person, depending on the scene, makes it impossible to relate to the character on an intellectual level. (We're repeatedly told throughout the film that Arthur Edens is a brilliant man - a genius - and yet, every time he's on screen, he's babbling incoherently or grinning like an idiot.

Wilkinson seems to be drawing inspiration from Peter Finch's classic performance from Network as the lunatic newsman Howard Beale, but Beale was really a mad prophet who blurted out harsh truths. Edens is just a simpleton, enthralled by young adult fantasy novels, prone to gabbing on the phone while lying in the fetal position and passionately in love with a Midwestern adolescent whom he hardly knows. Gilroy thus robs this early, fevered monologue - as I said, the best part of the whole film - of any sort of genuine impact. These words become merely the rantings of a deranged mind.

It's a stumble, one of many. (An elongated and utterly pointless subplot about Michael's strained relationship with his alcoholic brother was another). I know it's Gilroy's first movie as a director, so perhaps I should cut him some slack, but honestly, the posturing of this movie really got on my nerves. There's nothing wrong with making a bold, strident first movie, of announcing one's arrival as a major filmmaker. But doing so when working with such warmed-over, drab and uninteresting material, giving a genre exercise such a drab and lifeless demeanor, isn't doing your audience or your reputation any favors.


It's Mom said...

I'm guessing you didn't like it and judging from all the other press I thought it was the only film I wanted to go see. Okay, I'll pass. Any suggestions?

Leona Luella Faye said...

Thanks so much for that review. I agree with all of it. You really articulated exactly what I (and I'm sure many other people) felt quite nicely. It makes me so annoyed that this movie got so many (or shall I say ANY) Oscar nominations. I felt horribly cheated.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Very perceptive review. I found the two corporate hit men to be a laughable cliche. They're omnicompetent: they can inject someone so that a coroner won't find an injection bruise, they tap land lines and cell phones but then they botch a simple car bomb with their wireless detonator instead of just hooking it up to explode when the ignition is turned on.