Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
George Clooney seems to be on a mission to bring back the 1970s into cinema, and I say Godspeed, George, I’m with you 100% of the way. Unfortunately, Michael Clayton—though seemingly designed to hearken back to paranoid 70s thrillers like Klute and The Conversation—is not going to be the one to do it.
Michael Clayton is the brainchild of Tony Gilroy. He wrote the script for Clayton, which also marks his directorial debut. You might have seen Gilroy’s work before—he wrote (or co-wrote) the scripts for all three Bourne films, as well as the eternal guilty pleasure temple that is The Devil’s Advocate. Directing Michael Clayton was no doubt sort of his reward for helping to bring in nearly a billion dollars with the Bourne franchise, and he swings for the fences in his debut.
Michael Clayton is sort of a Frankenstein monster of body parts looted from the graves of the 70s greats. There’s an amoral, icy corporation (The Conversation, Klute). There’s a long-time establishment insider (Tom Wilkinson) who goes nuts over a lifetime of selling his soul and speaks truth to power (a pretty direct nod to Peter Finch as Howard Beale in Network). There’s a paranoiac sense that Things Have Gone Too Far (The Parallax View). There’s also Sydney Pollack.
And I have no problem with this. I love this kind of movie. Bring it on, I say. Michael Clayton basically works as you’re watching it. It’s full of arresting faces, commanding actors (like Clooney, Wilkinson, Pollack, and Tilda Swinton as an Evil Ice Queen of Corporate America). Gilroy manages to indict everyone in the film of at least being complicit through inaction of the ravages evil corporations have wrought on the common man. The problem is is that it’s basically as simple as I described it in the previous sentence.
When Howard Beale went nuts on-air in Network, his calling bullshit on the media was just the first step in exploring what it means to call the media bullshit, just how bullshit the media is, and whether it even makes any sense to resist What We Have Wrought. It’s a complicated, thorny issue, unpacked in one of the most legendary scripts ever written (and almost single-handedly secured Paddy Chayefsky’s place as a screenwriting god).
Michael Clayton’s whistleblower, on the other hand, calls bullshit on….a corporation that knowingly poisoned innocent people and then tried to cover it up. Not only have we seen this stock villain before (Erin Brokovich, A Civil Action), there’s really no issue to debate at all. Corporations that give people cancer to make a profit = bad. No sane person would argue against that. And that’s what makes Michael Clayton, for all the talent on-screen and all the attempts made to hearken back to a better time in American cinema, die a stale death on-screen. This is not a complicated movie. If Tom Wilkinson’s Howard Beale impersonation had led to him stirring up a genuine debate about whether or not corporations do more social bad than social good (which, if adults were having it, would be a wonderful debate), then Gilroy may have been onto something. But Gilroy doesn’t give us this. He gives us a straw man corporation that is as much the personification of evil as Sauron is in The Lord of the Rings. And if you want to approach the throne of mature, made-for-adults movies of the 70s, you can’t take your villain from the fairy tales we tell to scare little children.
The other major fumble Gilroy commits in Michael Clayton is in his portrayal of, um, Michael Clayton. All movie long, people talk about how great George Clooney’s character is as a “fixer.” He’s the symbolic janitor for a major law-firm, cleaning up the messes the firms’ partners and clients make when they’re going around wreaking evil corporation havoc on the little people. Okay, I’ll buy the fact that high-level corporate guys commit drunken hit-and-runs and presumably kill hookers during risky games of S&M on a regular basis for the sake of the film. That’s a fantasy I can guiltily enjoy. But though people talk about how amazing Clooney is at taking care of these kind of situations—we never once get to see him actually do anything competent. Instead of Pulp Fiction’s Wolf, we get a guy who bails Wilkinson out of jail and then loses track of him within eight hours of springing him free. The first scene in the movie—meant to show us Clooney on the job, “fixing”—has him showing up at some rich hit-and-running corporate guy’s country house … and basically telling him there’s nothing he can do for him. Clayton just kind of wanders through the movie, in a daze, not fixing anything…until he comes up with a too-neatly-tied-together scheme (lifted straight out of one of Gilroy’s earlier screenplays, by the way) to nab the evil Tilda Swinton and her corporate masters.
Clooney’s status as the movie star guy so cool everyone wants to work with him goes a long way for him getting the kind of 70s-infused projects he so clearly loves made—from Syriana to Good Night and Good Luck to this one right here. Unfortunately, Clooney’s status as the movie star guy so cool everyone wants to work with him is also a key reason Clooney’s ambition is most destined to fall short (though not without some noble, worthy efforts). The essence of the great 70s actor was that they were ANTI-movie glamour. Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, Roy Schneider, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman—what made these guys so great was that they were character actors who, through fate, luck and talent, were allowed to become the most interesting generation of leading men of all time. Clooney’s just too damn suave and perfect-looking to stretch his on-screen persona the way those guys did. I don’t think this is news to George—he’s an intelligent guy, realizes that audiences aren’t going to buy him as a heroin-snorting transvestite, and picks his roles and movies accordingly.
Michael Clayton certainly isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not really all that great of one either. The ambitions are admirable, but the results are a bit disappointing.