December 20, 2007

"Michael Clayton"

Here's my full-length review of the Golden Globe-nominated "Michael Clayton" from 11/19/07 issue of The American Conservative:

Last year, the NBC Nightly News edited a segment to make it appear that I was debating George Clooney over whether moviegoers were interested in his social conscience. As an admittedly biased observer of the dispute, I'd say that Clooney's roguish charm absolutely crushed my tiresome logic.

Now, Clooney's anti-corporate thriller "Michael Clayton" is one of the best-reviewed films of the year, with critics ecstatically comparing it to their favorite anti-Establishment films of the 1970s. And, indeed, it is competently made. Yet, it has generated little excitement at the box office [$39 million after 12 weeks].

"Michael Clayton" illustrates how dull even natural stars like Clooney and intelligent filmmakers like Tony Gilroy (moving up to direct after writing the "Bourne" trilogy) can be when they set out to make "serious" (i.e., self-important) and "political" (leftist) movies. "Michael Clayton" is a domestic "Syriana," the morose 2005 film about an evil oil company that won Clooney an Academy Award for growing a beard and putting on 30 pounds. (Hey, I did that years before George even thought of it.)

In "Michael Clayton," Clooney plays a Queens-born lawyer with a Fordham degree working at a top Manhattan corporate law firm otherwise staffed by WASP and Jewish Ivy Leaguers. They won't make him a partner because he's outclassed intellectually, but when high finance turns tabloid, only he, a former prosecutor with a brother in the NYPD, can tap the municipal "favor bank." If a CEO client hits a jogger with his Jaguar and runs off, Clooney / Clayton is brought in as the fixer.

The screenplay, though, fails to exploit the intriguing ethnic angles. Rather, it churns out the same old plot about a murderous multinational rubbing out whoever gets in its carcinogenic way.

Tilda Swinton, so aristocratic and androgynous that she makes Cate Blanchett look like Angelina Jolie, plays the corporate counsel for UNorth, which peddles its cancer-causing herbicide in 62 countries. She pays Clooney's law firm tens of millions to fight weed-killer lawsuits, but then their lead defense attorney (Tom Wilkinson of "In the Bedroom") goes all Howard Beale of "Network," ranting about how working for UNorth has put blood on his hands while stripping naked during a deposition.

This sounds entertaining, but isn't, because auteur Gilroy ignores even the ripest targets for satire, such as the plaintiffs' contingency fee attorneys, always a colorful subspecies (Homo avaricious vulgaris). Instead, he maintains a steady tone of doleful indignation.

Our common law doesn't work well with cases in which blame can only be assigned statistically. Say the defendant's herbicide raises the chance of cancer by 50 percent. So, one out of three customers who get cancer are victims of the company, while two out of three aren't; but science can't tell which is which. The contingency fee attorneys bring suits from everybody who might have been harmed, while the defense tries to insinuate to the jury that the plaintiff deserved to get cancer. It's an ugly but fascinating slice of modern Americana, but not one you'll hear anything about from the one-sided "Michael Clayton."

Clooney's fixer has to get the litigator back on his manic-depression medicines so the firm can stiff some more widows and orphans for UNorth. This plunges him into a dark night of the soul, which Clooney portrays by moping around sullenly for two hours. Can somebody please tell George that he's not an actor -- he's a movie star? If I want to see somebody looking tired, ineffectual, and beaten down by life, well, I've got a mirror.

Then, Swinton calls in a Blackwater-like executive outcomes firm to murder Wilkinson before the renegade defense attorney spills UNorth's secrets. Next, she has a bomb placed in Clooney's car.

Swinton can play over-the-top villains such as the White Witch in "Narnia" and an Archangel Gabriel in league with his former colleague Lucifer in "Constantine." Here, though, she realistically embodies a common type, the lady lawyer whose biological clock is barely ticking. She's fine at it, but the authenticity of her performance combined with the absurdity of Gilroy's plot wrecks the movie because corporate yuppettes don't kill people.

Only at the very end does Clooney finally turn on the charisma, and that's just to point out the stupidity of the storyline. He explains to Tilda Swinton that he's having her arrested because, "I'm not the guy you kill. I'm the guy you buy off!" Good point, George, but it's a little late to be bringing it up…

Rated R for language.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Maybe it's because I'm a liberal, but I enjoyed the movie.

And I wound up seeing it instead of Beowulf, too, so I wss prejudiced against it.

Anonymous said...

Good point Steve -- corporate yuppies and lawyers don't kill for Monsanto. Instead money is spread around in influence peddling.

Which is not very interesting dramatically.

You're wrong though on Clooney being a movie star. He just isn't. He won't put butts in seats. UNLESS he's making an Ocean's whatever movie.

The whole movie (and SFG's response, no offense SFG) are problematic of Hollywood's decline.

No one in Hollywood is close socially to their audience to figure out that they just want entertainment, not a moral lecture on how people in Malibu are better than those in say, Lawndale. Or Torrance.

It's why Syriana, Crash, all those movies stunk to high heaven. And made little money.

Meanwhile Nic Cage and Will Smith generally carefully select projects that promise populist appeal. While Clooney claims Hollywood ended Jim Crow, saved the Environment, and stopped the Cold War.

Anonymous said...

I went looking for the "debate" to see if it was as bad as you said but couldn't find it. If it's any consolation, Clooney is starting to look like an alcoholic ex-frat boy. I think his newly developed social conscience is actually some kind of compensatory behavior for the loss of status that will ensue as he ages. Unfortunately for Clooney, as his boyish good looks degenerate into chubby cheeked pastiness, people will stop being motivated to agree with everything he says.

Anonymous said...

I found the movie unbelievable too. The movie was going for a realistic look and feel which made the story seem even more unlikely.

I think the people who made that movie, and possibly some of critics, think that this sort of thing happens. I recall from the Enron story there was one executive who commited suicide, there might have been some conspiracy theories about that. And no one Karen Silkwood wasn't killed.

BTW, an excellent book on conporate shenanigans is The Informant, but Eichenwald. It was about Archer Daniels Midland and price fixing. Highly recommended.