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Movie Review: Michael Clayton

Review for 'Michael Clayton (v.f.)'
Michael Clayton
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 120 min
MPAA rating: R (Language, Some Sexual Dialogue)
Release Date: 2007-10-05
Tags: There are no tags.
By "Chicago Tribune"

By Michael Phillips, Tribune Movie Critic
3-1/2 stars
"Michael Clayton" makes old-style Hollywood craftsmanship look easy. It's one of the most satisfying films of the year, recalling a classy breed of studio film more common in the 1970s and the early `80s. Such films often made money, but they weren't blockbusters and didn't try to be. Generally they were too low-key to bust any blocks. So is "Michael Clayton," but I suspect it will wear well, and well past Oscar season.
It comes from screenwriter Tony Gilroy, whose knack for tough, fast dialogue has done a lot to keep the "Bourne" franchise viable. Here he makes a smooth transition into feature film directing. It's not an excitingly made picture, exactly, and Clooney's character is more anchor than magnet. But nearly everything in "Michael Clayton" works the way it's supposed to, and every actor feels right.
Its title role is made for a movie star, just as the protagonist of Sidney Lumet's legal drama "The Verdict" was, and Clooney is by now actor enough (as well as movie star enough) to take it easy on screen while staying inside a character's skin. In "Michael Clayton" he plays a charismatic, flawed man who must test his mettle, and his personal morality, against powerful corporate forces.
A divorced father with a gambling problem, Clayton is employed by a formidable Manhattan corporate law firm, headed by Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack, effortless). Clayton used to be a prosecutor with a do-gooder streak; now he's a "fixer," aiding rich clients who drink and drive and mess up but have the connections to avoid hard time.
The firm's crisis of the moment is close to home: Its top litigator (Tom Wilkinson) goes off his medication for manic-depression and starts spewing inflammatory statements regarding the case he's working on, a $3 billion class-action suit brought against the fearsome-sounding agrochemical corporation U/North. Did the company knowingly manufacture pesticides that cost a few unfortunate farmers and their relations their lives? Assigned to rein in his colleague, Clayton soon realizes that the gray area in which his firm operates may be stained with crimson.
"Michael Clayton" is a here's-how-it-happened drama, cleverly but not over-elaborately structured. Early on Clayton, somewhere in Westchester County, N.Y., just after dawn, stands atop a hill at sunrise. His car explodes. The rest of Gilroy's story, which goes into "four days earlier" flashback, explains the who, what and why behind that explosion.
The film has a grave look but not a self-important one: It is photographed in rich, moody tones by Robert Elswit, and Gilroy takes time for details not merely allied to the mystery, but to the people inside of it. Clayton's life is a bit of a mess, and his relationship with his preteen son (Austin Williams) is a wary, sometime thing. There's a sweet moment when Clooney drops his kid off at school, and his son gives him a tentative little wave good-bye. It doesn't feel planned or actor-y. Clayton's newly sober brother (David Lansbury), a vivid secondary character, reminds Michael of where his own life could go if he's not careful. This sibling rivalry pays off in strict story terms, but it feels like a real, lived-in relationship. (Screenwriter Gilroy likens being married to a drunk to being "strapped to a bomb.")
Here's an example of where "Michael Clayton" stays on course, where a dozen lesser legal thrillers would've blown it. Tilda Swinton, who is marvelous, plays the icy chief counsel for U/North, but Gilroy cannily reveals what she's like behind closed doors: a nervous wreck, and more interestingly mixed-up than the usual asexual woman of power found in these sort of stories.
Lately Clooney has made two kinds of films: The noble, relatively uncommercial venture ("Syriana," "Good Night and Good Luck") and the well-groomed lark ("Ocean's 13," which I hated). Besides being the best-ever John Grisham legal thriller not actually based on a Grisham novel, "Michael Clayton" reminds us that actors with taste can, and occasionally do, choose a third sort of picture.
"Michael Clayton"
Written and directed by Tony Gilroy; photographed by Robert Elswit; edited by John Gilroy; music by James Newton Howard; production design by Kevin Thompson; produced by Sydney Pollack, Jennifer Fox, Steven Samuels and Kerry Orent. A Warner Bros. Pictures release. Running time: 2:00. MPAA rating: R (for language, including some sexual dialogue).
Michael Clayton - George Clooney
Arthur Edens - Tom Wilkinson
Karen Crowder - Tilda Swinton
Marty Bach - Sydney Pollack

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Oct 11, 2007 - Chicago Tribune
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