Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Oct 07, 2007 6:39 am 
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A mainstream moral mess with some smarts

Tony (Bourne franchise scripter) Gilroy, directing as well as writing this time, strives for a kind of disheveled moral grandeur in this thriller about corporate lawyers who slowly turn on the chemical company U/North, which one of their ace partners has been defending against a $9 million class action lawsuit for six years. This is Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), a man with a "chemical imbalance" who goes off his medication and has a psychotic break (his role's been compared to Peter Finch's in the 1976 Network)--thus temporarily concealing from his associates the fact that he's found damning evidence and has gone over, quite rationally and determinedly, to the class action side. Michael Clayton, the law firm's corporate fixer or bailout man ("janiter," he prefers to call it) is summoned to rescue Arthur and smooth things over with U/North. But Arthur's meltdown at a deposition-taking in Minneapolis draws the attention of Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), the chemical firm's general counsel. In Gilroy's somewhat sexist portrait, she's seen constantly pondering her outfits and practicing her public lines. No such self-doubt from the law firm's main partner, Manny (Sydney Pollack).

Gilroy's idea of corporate lawyers turning into whistle blowers (Michael's family origins--Irish Catholic cops--come in handy) makes for a drama that holds the attention. One wonders how it would have played without Wilkinson's flashy acting, Swinton's proven skill at playing the evil sprite or wicked witch, or Clooney's matinee-idol glamor. You can call this a down-and-dirty role for George, but it's really much less so than the one he had in Syriana. This drama hovers, sometimes successfully, sometimes a bit uneasily, between the Clooney-Soderbergh team's edgy stuff and their pop money-makers. Clayton wears sharp-looking and very becoming dark suits (at all times) and expensive Swiss watches, drives a sleek new black company Mercedes, and can bum $80,000 off Manny to pay his debts from a failed bar-restaurant venture--and still have a fews thousand left over to indulge his high-stakes gambling habit. Even his failings are glamorous, and he has a dashing final scene where he brings the bad guys quickly to their knees. It's one of several wonderfully cinematic moments by Gilroy, who has jumped into the Hollywood directorial A-list with this debut--depending on boxoffice receipts, that is; but the critical reception is looking good.

People get surveilled, then killed; one attempt fails. The plot pins all the bad stuff on Crowder; incredibly, she takes decisions without needing approval from above. These are larger-than-life portraits, with some fudging of details, some incredible strokes of luck--and too much loud portentous music from an annoying soundtrack constantly tellng us how important and climactic every scene is. Still, Gilroy knows how to tell an action story, and I don't buy that this is only a a clumsy knockoff of a 70's muckraking movie. Gilroy's into something different. It's original of him to focus on a lawsuit without even entering a courtroom, showing a deposition (the key document is a scientist's report from fifteen years before that that the U/North CEO signed off on)--making the main lawyers either half-crazy (Arthur) or essentially canny businessmen (Manny) or mop-up guys who can make a deal about just about anything (Michael). "The truth can be adjusted" is the movie's slogan, a transparently ironic one. Truth can be adjusted--until it can't. Maybe; maybe not. But isn't it pretty to think so--that the truth will out, even in corporate law? There is an element of feel-good manipulation throughout this slick tale, but it's caviar to the general: it assumes the mainstream audience isn't made up of Neanderthals, after all.

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