George Clooney is Kentucky's answer to Cary Grant.
A George Clooney film is an exercise in style. It may be pungent style as in Good Night and Good Luck, splashy style as in Ocean's Pick-a-Number, or lame style as in The Good German. But it is style.
Clooney's latest venture into panache is thriller style in Michael Clayton.
Clooney, in the title role, glides through his performance as a "fixer" at a large law firm in Manhattan, who cleans up the messes of clients.
Michael gets involved in attempting to fix a situation caused when a senior litigating partner goes berzerk and threatens a settlement. Arthur Edens, the addled lawyer, has a breakdown in Milwaukee, and Michael rushes there to "fix" matters.
But the lawyer won't be fixed; he has a tsunami of conscience and prattles wildly that the company they are representing has done horrible things.
Michael is drawn into the intrigue.
Clooney does silence well, and it is a good thing, because the dialogue that writer-director Tony Gilroy gives him is nondescript.
Michael has a back story that doesn't quite work -- something about a restaurant that failed, a reprobate brother, a precocious son who says things such as "alliance" that small boys wouldn't say, and some gambling involvement. It is all very circuitous.
Clooney has several scenes without words -- walking up a hill to stand before horses (twice), a walk on the sidewalk, a ride in a cab. Walk, George, walk. Ride, George, ride.
I suppose that a dull back story is better than no back story. The actress who is badly hampered by the lack of back story is Tilda Swinton, who plays Karen Crowder, a corporate lawyer. It is a one-dimensional character.
We realize Karen is dedicated to her job and success. She spends a lot of time standing before a mirror practicing what she is going to say in later presentations.
Preen, Tilda, preen. Run, Tilda, -- oh, who cares? The big confrontation at the end between Michael and Karen is one of the most anti-climactic scenes of the year. It's been done before, and before, and before.
Michael Mann's The Insider, with Russell Crowe, is the gold standard for this kind of movie. Michael Clayton is tin -- shiny and thin.
Tony Gilroy is a first-time director. His talent is adapting other writers' work for the screen. He wrote the scripts for Robert LUdlum's Bourne novels. On his own, directing and writing, Gilroy stalls. He tries to add meaning by jumps in time. It works better for tv's Damages, but it often is an inchoate technigue. It is in Michael Clayton.
Gilroy's screenplay has unseemly calculation in the forgettable dialogue. There's even a shameless reference to Larry King in the conversation at a card game, that cries, "We mentioned you, now flack for us, Larry."
The thing that saves the film from Clooney's and Swinton's blankness is the raging performance by Tom Wilkinson as the often maniacal lawyer. Clooney seems like a dip of vanilla ice cream, and Swinton is sherbet, next to Wilkinson's volcanic chocolate cake.
Sydney Pollack is a director who has acted in movies -- e.g., Tootsie and Eyes Wide Shut. He humanizes his business-oriented characters, and he is effective as always as Michael Clayton's boss.
Most of the previews shown before Michael Clayton are aimed at the chick flick audience. Studios obviously think women are present at Michael Clayton to see George Clooney being cool and comely.
A clever technique keeps most of the audience in their seats for much of the credits. They expect more. They do get more -- more George. We love you, George.
George Clooney is vanilla ice cream that never melts.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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