(CNN) -- George Clooney breezes through the "Ocean" movies with such unflappable insouciance, he must have figured we'd like to see him suffer. So here he is as "Michael Clayton," a prized asset in one of the best law firms in the country.
In "Michael Clayton," George Clooney plays a law firm fixer who becomes enmeshed in a major case.
But he's an asset nobody likes to talk about. They keep him under the table, the fixer who comes in to clean up the mess.
Looking a shade grayer than we're used to, Clooney holds that smug smile of his on a tight leash, and no wonder. Clayton is $70,000 in debt on a restaurant that went south. He has an ex-wife, no time for his son and a junkie for a brother. And he doesn't know it yet, but his troubles are only just beginning.
While Clooney has been cracking safes these past few years, "Clayton" writer and director Tony Gilroy has spent much the same period wrestling with Jason Bourne -- he's the writer of all three Bourne films. But Bourne's such a slippery non-entity, it's hardly surprising that for his first film as director Gilroy has gone to town to flesh out Clayton's back story, and seems keen to impress on us the seriousness of the issues at hand -- namely corporate malfeasance and the corruption embedded in the legal system.
Funny, though, how Clayton turns into a Bourne figure: a loose cannon who stumbles onto a conspiracy that incriminates his own associates. It's true, he doesn't get the chance to show off his jujitsu, speak Russian or shoot anybody -- he's more of an inaction hero, Hamlet with a middle-age spread -- but he does survive an exploding car. Heck, for a time he even forgets to shave.
Clooney and his longtime producing partner Steven Soderbergh haven't been shy about their admiration for a certain brand of social-conscience filmmaking that flourished in the 1970s, and which seems to be coming back in vogue. (Blame it on the war.) Set over four wintry days, "Michael Clayton" is evidently modeled on the conspiracy thrillers of the Nixon era -- Sydney Pollack, who directed "Three Days of the Condor," plays Michael's boss here, and very well too.
There's an echo of "Network's" Howard Beale in the character of Arthur Edens (the reliably excellent Tom Wilkinson), a "killer litigator" who cracks up in the midst of a major case: the defense of an ethically indefensible agrochemical company that's been poisoning its customers. The bipolar Arthur should probably have taken a vacation, but instead he stops taking his medication and performs an impromptu striptease during a deposition.
"Just pretend it's not madness," Edens pleads with his friend Michael, who has been sent to pick up the pieces. It's an odd request in the circumstances, but Gilroy is more than ready to ride that train of thought: Arthur may be batty as a bedbug, but if he wants to switch sides it's OK with us. After all, it's not like we're pulling for the toxic conglomerate with the icky-smooth PR ... and contract killers on the payroll.
Sticking for the most part to a sober, understated game plan, Gilroy and his brother John, who edited the picture, find some fresh rhythms. The opening effectively juxtaposes neutral shots of a New York law office at night with Arthur's disembodied diatribe against his profession; a wake turns from consternation and sadness to a chillingly callous conclusion in just a handful of swift, economical strokes.
All the same, it's hard not to notice that Tilda Swinton, as the agrochemical company's ambitious corporate counsel, appears to be on her own in a much more interesting movie, the one about the striving, self-sacrificing company woman who panics when a $3 billion dollar civil suit blows up on her watch.
First spotted cramping in a flop sweat, it's Swinton who really gets her hands dirty and sells her soul to the devil. By contrast, Michael Clayton looks more like an innocent bystander; his crimes of omission are hardly the stuff of cinematic legend.
This is a classy, conscientious, well-acted drama, but it's hardly a revelation that law firms get rich defending immoral corporations -- sad to say, that truth is already out there. "Michael Clayton" is well worth your time, but it's too bad that it's not worth more.
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