Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Searcher: Michael Clayton

[With the Academy Awards approaching, this week The Cooler is posting reviews of the Best Picture nominees, written upon the films’ release in the author’s pre-blog era. Feel free to use the comments section to argue why your favorite nominee should win or why any of these films didn’t deserve to be nominated.]

It’s the middle of the night and Michael Clayton is standing in the kitchen of a man he just met, a very-wealthy client of Clayton’s law firm who just hours ago was involved in a hit-and-run accident in which he did both the hitting and the running. Clayton is there to offer advice. But as he calmly and firmly tells the man what he needs to do, Clayton’s answers are poorly received. “They told me you were some kind of miracle worker,” the man protests, not realizing that avoiding prison would be a miracle in itself. “I’m the janitor,” Clayton replies. And so he is: he’s the man who cleans up messes.

But some messes are bigger than others. Michael Clayton, by writer/director Tony Gilroy, is about a full-on quagmire. It involves the following: a biochemical company called U/North that’s trying to reach a settlement after knowingly selling a toxic weed-killer; a bipolar attorney (Tom Wilkinson’s Arthur Edens) who goes crackers in a deposition room after deciding to expose his client; and Clayton, who is asked to sort the whole thing out while he battles personal problems of his own – dissatisfaction with his job, a troubled relationship with his brother, a deteriorating bond with his son and a $75,000 debt from a restaurant investment gone wrong.

Clayton is played by George Clooney in a performance that’s noteworthy for its lack of flash. He’s no Johnny Ocean, but Clooney’s Clayton isn’t dull, he’s just opaque. Clayton appears to be permanently preoccupied, a little detached. And yet he’s also determined. With his personal life in disarray, he needs to bring order to something. And so in a movie that bears some resemblance to North By Northwest, Clooney is Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill: clearly confident, a little exasperated and, yep, always easy on the eyes. Like that Hitchcock suspense thriller, Michael Clayton is less about discovering the truth than it is about searching for it. And as a result, we find ourselves invested in the detective instead of the case.

Still, Michael Clayton is a taut mystery. One could argue that its looping storyline unnecessarily complicates the simple, but nothing else in the movie smacks of gimmickry. Instead, this is a film that never panders to the slow-witted. It draws us in with its solemn tone and never lets us go, carrying us right through the closing credits. The screenplay has faults – most notably a whopper of a deus ex machina and a climax that resorts to one of the most hackneyed plot devices in the cinema library – but their ill-effects are minimal since the plot’s destination is mostly irrelevant. It’s the journey that counts.

Michael Clayton isn’t as rewarding as a classic like Chinatown, but it’s similarly designed. This is a movie that takes its time and isn’t afraid to explore dead ends. It’s a story about process that answers our questions while rarely spelling them out. Against the vast expanse of films that are only as substantive as their plot twists are extreme, Michael Clayton is a break from the mind-numbing norm. From a plot and character that are almost boringly real, we get a welcome dose of true escapism.

Since the above review is brief, let’s issue a serious spoiler warning (I mean it, kids!) and spend a moment on the film’s conclusion – not the ultimate ending, in which the main character attempts to lose himself during a cab ride to nowhere as the credits roll beside him (a sequence that’s strangely cool), but the plot’s ending. You know, the big moment where Clayton wins the day.

Put simply, the scene where Clayton cons Tilda Swinton’s Karen Crowder into implicating herself in a crime is a significant letdown that obliterates some of the film’s grit with triteness. Up until then I enjoyed all the ways Michael Clayton didn’t feel like your standard audience pleaser, only to have the rug pulled out from under me with the implementation of a hackneyed plot device: the old concealed tape recorder bit. Watching that scene play out felt like, oh, I don’t know, having the audacity to hope that a young, charismatic candidate for president might actually change the world for the better, only to have him win the election and use the word “decider” in his acceptance speech. Something like that. (Never mind that anyone who has used a handheld recorder can attest to the infuriatingly poor ability of the built-in microphone to record the intended subject, even when the device is held under the subject’s chin. Concealed in a pocket? Fugeddaboutit!)

Other than the plot’s pedestrian climax, Michael Clayton is thoroughly enjoyable. Of the nominees for Best Picture, it is the one I’m least interested in seeing again (as a whole or in parts), and yet I’m downright giddy that it’s nominated (seven times, actually). See, each year the Academy likes at least one of the Best Picture nominees to be a fairly straightforward affair built around a beloved star that can be dangled for the rooting interest of the subtitle-phobic masses (think Jerry Maguire). If Michael Clayton is the kind of movie the Academy now deems easily accessible and yet still praiseworthy, the median intelligence of movies could be improving. We can only (audaciously) hope!


Mark said...

Another good review, and I agree with the addendum about the tape recorder -- you're right, those things barely work when you and your subject are both looking right at them.

What I liked about this movie, in addition to the old '70s/Pakula feel, was Michael Clayton's internal struggle of coming to grips with who he is compared with who he might have been. Maybe my middle age is showing, but that felt real and true and powerful to me.

It was one of my favorites this year, although not my pick for best pic.

Jason Bellamy said...

Michael Clayton's internal struggle of coming to grips with who he is compared with who he might have been.

Well said, Mark. You know, after writing last night that MC is the BP nominee I'm least excited to see a second time, I've been having second thoughts. Now I'm curious to see how well it would stand up on second viewing, with its secrets already known.

The movie missed me with the fantasy novel thread involving Clayton's son, but otherwise I loved the character. Clooney is wonderful in the quiet scenes when he relents to his gambling addiction and when he watches his dream restaurant auctioned off in pieces. Heavy.

Sure didn't hurt to see this movie on a weekend trip to Manhattan.