First Thing We Do…
I wish I could say that I know George Clooney. I can’t. I don’t. But I did meet him once, briefly, at a press event for Good Night, and Good Luck. and listened to him speak for an hour or whatever it was about that film, and movies in general, and his life as a creative person in the strange situation he’s in of being both a huge “star” and someone with far greater artistic ambitions than merely getting mentioned in as many gossip columns as possible.
And what struck me most about him is that he isn’t anything at all like what you might expect him to be. There is, unexpectedly, something very melancholy, almost sad, about him. I may be stretching a bit now when I say that the impression I was left with was of a man happy with his work but not so happy with everything else. But that’s the impression I was left with.
I mention all this not to sound cool or drop names — I promise you that the press junket thing is nowhere near as glamorous or exciting as you might think it is, and there is something just a tad dispiriting about getting confirmation that someone you wanted to believe was jolly and charming and superhuman might just be as miserable and mortal as you are yourself. I mention it because the character Michael Clayton is more like what I suspect the real, nonsuperstar George Clooney-the-man is like than any other character we’ve seen him play before. That sounds just a little bit horrible because Michael Clayton is a little bit of a slimeball, though Michael Clayton the movie is all about his redemption and his journey back to decent humanity. Of course I don’t think Clooney is anything like a slimeball… though I do think there are probably things that smart, talented, ambitious people do in Hollywood — things they may be less than proud of in retrospect — in order to get themselves to a position where they finally have the power to do the projects they really want to do. Hello, Batman and Robin?
You sell out and you sell out and you sell out until you can’t do it anymore. And that’s when things gets interesting.
This is all introduction to me saying this: Michael Clayton is — hands-down, no-question, make-your-toes-curl-with-a-creative-crush — the absolute best, most surprising, most devastating performance Clooney (Ocean’s Thirteen, Syriana) has given us yet. And I would not be at all shocked to learn that that was because more than a little of it resonated with Clooney and the path he’s taken to get to the point where he can star — with thoroughly uncompromising integrity and unapologetic genius — in such an exhiliratingly elegant, sophisticated, grownup film.
To classify or to explain Michael Clayton — the directorial debut of Bourne series scribe Tony Gilroy — is to reduce it to less than the sum of its wonderfully jumbled, untidy parts, but here’s a shot: It’s Erin Brockovich for grownups, which acknowledges that reality is a lot messier and demands a lot more to fix it, if it even can be fixed on a grand scale, than mere sass. It’s the thematic sequel to The Insider, a thriller of the conscience in which what is at stake is a single man’s soul, and the collective soul of us all. It’s a horror story of human proportions of the all-too-ordinary awfulness of the real world of pettiness and greed and secret shame, and of the seemingly undefeatable power of hydra-headed corporations: get rid of one lawyer, and three more pop up in his place.
The plot, which is deliciously nonlinear, revolves around the $3 billion class action lawsuit Clayton’s big New York law firm is handling for agribusiness corp U/North — something to do with a pesticide that’s killing more than it should. Clayton is the “fixer,” the “janitor” the firm calls in when the shit hits the fan, and the shit really stinks this time: the firm’s lead litigator, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson: The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Batman Begins), seems to have gone off the deep end, seems to be sabotaging the very case he’s meant to be winning. Clayton’s job: either get Edens back on his meds — he’s manic depressive but fine when he’s medicated — or get him to keep his mouth shut and not say or do anything the plaintiffs can use against U/North. Which will make U/North’s in-house general counsel, the meticulous and studied Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton [The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Constantine], all cold, careless malevolence) very unhappy… and you don’t want to see her unhappy.
It’s all eerie and chilling and deeply, deeply horrifying in the most routine way, how casually truth and justice and humanity are cast aside by corporations — argi or legal or otherwise — when money is at issue, and how succinctly Michael Clayton suggests that modern pharmaceuticals can serve as a sledgehammer to enforced conformity. If Edens comes to his senses, as many of us would interpret his change of heart toward the crimes of U/North, just as he comes off his meds, is it ridiculous to suggest that there’s a connection? Just what, many aspects of Michael Clayton seem to ask, are we giving up of our own true selves to be a cog in the big machine of the modern world?
Clayton — looking sad and beaten down and how else should he look? — meanders through this morass as just another of the profound disasters of his life he’s juggling. Oh, the scene in which Edens wanders into and out of lucidity and finally sharpens up enough to let Clayton know that he, Edens, is still on the ball enough to be a formidable legal opponent is stunning — if you didn’t already acknowledge Wilkinson as an astonishing actor, this will do it. But it’s only one sucker punch Clayton stumbles under, from the collapse of the restaurant venture he’s undertaken, probably unwisely, with his drunken druggy brother to the strange obsession his young son (Clayton is a divorced dad, of course) has with the (invented) fantasy novel Realm and Conquest, the son’s moral arbiter in all things. (Think: What would Frodo do?) Clayton is buffeted by all of them until he breaks… and he’s such a careful, constricted man that the moment at which he breaks is open to interpretation.
And how thrilling is that, to anyone who craves entertainment in which the level of complication is directly correlated with the level of enjoyment?