BY NEIL FAUERSO
The common denominator of our great male stars is that in their prime they were completely emblematic yet fit their roles. For example, Nick Nolte may have always been a gruff, carousing SOB, regardless of the role, but he made it work. George Clooney has officially joined these rarefied ranks. After putzing around as another dreary action star for a few years, Clooney finally settled into his niche—the world-weary charmer at the end of his rope. Finessed in the underrated Syriana and perfected in the cracklingly entertaining Michael Clayton, Clooney has emerged as a mix between a young Jeff Bridges and Humphrey Bogart, both sharp and shaggy, morally compromised and strangely noble. It’s a magnetic “big star” performance, and Clooney nails it.
Michael Clayton marks the directorial debut of Tony Gilroy, the celebrated screenwriter of The Bourne Trilogy. Gilroy obviously is a late bloomer, as his early films (The Devil’s Advocate, Bait, The Cutting Edge) were flabby pot-boilers. Gilroy began to hone his craft in the lean and mean Bourne films. But with Michael Clayton, Gilroy lets his wordiness and intelligence run free. Though occasionally self-knowingly smart, Michael Clayton is, as many have said, the best John Grisham movie ever.
Clooney is of course the titular character Michael Clayton, a “fixer” for a major corporate law firm. Clayton basically cleans up the messes that the very, very rich make. When the brilliant senior litigator for the firm, Arthur Eden (the always great Tom Wilkinson), melts down during a deposition for a massive agricultural firm he’s defending, Michael is called to clean up the mess. However, this deal—with a deeply callous corporation and its scruples-eroding senior counsel Karen Crowder (a phenomenal Tilda Swinton)—causes Michael to wake up.
At its heart, Michael Clayton is crowd-pleasing, adult-leaning entertainment. There are no big surprises and no big risks. For what it wants to be and what it is, though, Michael Clayton is remarkably good—brisk, believable, and engrossing. The legal jargon rings true and chilling, there’s an assassination that’s completely terrifying in its matter-of-factness, and Gilroy shoots the film in neutral, graying locations. All of the actors are uniformly excellent and seem to rise to the occasion (Sydney Pollack is especially menacing).
Back in the day, movies like this came out all the time. Now, it’s a really big deal. If the modest box office success of Michael Clayton holds, hopefully we’ll see more of these in the future. A-