(director/writer: Tony Gilroy; cinematographer: Robert Elswit; editor: John Gilroy; music: James Newton Howard; cast: George Clooney (Michael Clayton), Tom Wilkinson (Arthur Edens), Tilda Swinton (Karen Crowder), Sydney Pollack (Marty Bach), Austin Williams (Henry Clayton, child), David Lansbury (Timmy Clayton), Merritt Wever (Anna), Ken Howard (Don Jefferies), Denis O’Hare (Mr. Greer), Michael O’Keefe (Barry Grissom); Runtime: 119; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Sydney Pollack/Jennifer Fox/Steven Samuels/Kerry Orent; Warner Brothers Pictures; 2007)
“It barrels through its formulaic story and clichéd elements with its outstanding cast leading the way.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Writer-director Tony Gilroy, in his directorial debut, presents an intelligent, moody and dark thriller that is also top notchentertainment. There’s some shades of “Erin Brockovich” righteousness for the little guy in the story, and a pleasing payback ending. It barrels through its formulaic story and clichéd elements with its outstanding cast leading the way, especially a terrific George Clooney; it also has a well-written script that keeps things exciting, human and credible. The face of corporate evil is exposed as a disarmingly banal one and at least two corporate men caught up in a lifetime of selling their soul to the company have a chance to mend their ways and take different paths to find redemption, with one quite willing and the other reluctantly brought there due to circumstances that get out of control. It offers an old-fashioned story that asks questions about ethics in corporate America and whether that’s just a laughable term or can it actually be applied when everyone else seems to be playing fast and loose with the idea of what’s right and wrong.
Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is an ex-prosecutor in Queens now working for Kenner, Back and Ledeen, a big-time corporate Manhattan law firm run by his cynically realistic friend Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack). Our hero doesn’t try cases but is known as “the fixer,” someone who specializes in dealing with the firm’s dirty problems that a regular trial lawyer might get his fingers burned on. What he does isn’t always ethical or within the law: he adjusts the truth. This has its price for anyone with a conscience, and a sullen and flawed Michael has one and therefore has no illusions about his job and merely calls himself the firm’s high-priced janitor.
Michael looks haggard, as his personal life is not going well. He is a recovering gambler who has had his share of heavy losses and he has undergone a bitter divorce that has left him trying his best to keep contact with his very smart young son Henry. Also his brother Tim, a druggie and alcoholic, let him down, as they were partners in a bar he recently purchased which went belly up and he’s left with a week to square a $75,000 debt.
The film’s main heavy is Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), a cheerless, sexless and soulless corporation lawyer who has no conscience or love for anything but has made a cold bargain to give everything of herself to the corporation to get in return a sense of power and worth. She’s the chief counsel for an agrichemical giant, U/North, that is being sued for 10 billion dollars in a class-action suit and her firm refuses to settle for damages even though it’s apparent her company is in the wrong and that their poisonous weed product killed over 400 people. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), the top litigator for the firm of Kenner, Back and Ledeen, after working on this case for years, suddenly goes off his medication and goes nuts in a meltdown; the brilliant lawyer strips naked at the deposition hearing and later in the parking lot, and starts raving he’s the Shiva of death. The fixer is called in to get him out of jail, clean up the mess and get him back on his meds. But problems arise that loom larger than what Michael thought possible, and he’s left on his own to see if he can keep ahead of his personal problems and also, at the same time, deal with the more than just sticky problems over corporate intrigue.
This is an actor’s picture. Tilda Swinton is spellbinding as the personification of corporate evil and blind female ambition in a man’s world. Sydney Pollack (also the co-producer) is perfecto as the somewhat nice guy, at least in comparison to others in his position, who walks an ethically slippery line as the boss. Tom Wilkinson, in a highly charged emotional role, is amazingly convincing as the guilt-ridden voice of morality in this film, who is made to look crazy when he rebels and sabotages his law firm’s case even though no reasonable person can say that he isn’t right. But this film belongs to George Clooney, whose brooding performance carries the film on his stooping shoulders. He’s pitch-perfect in relating to others or the audience whether looking silently at a life-saving field of horses at the crack of dawn, dispensing tender love to his son, or slyly dealing with the various types of people in his business world.
It’s a film that has a big heart and mind, and does a masterful job keeping things tense. It realistically plays off how hard it is to find a balance in one’s life–to get away from old habits of always being selfish; especially when the business world, that handsomely pays the bills, is a cold and heartless one, and it hints that perhaps only a martyr like Wilkinson could become selfless in such a world and the best one could do is be cunning like Clooney.
REVIEWED ON 10/13/2007 GRADE: A