- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2007

I never thought that the screenwriter of the trashy “Devil’s Advocate” would make a tense, heart-pounding legal thriller. But that’s just what Tony Gilroy has done with his directorial debut, “Michael Clayton.”

George Clooney is the title character, a legal fixer at big Manhattan corporate law firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. “I’m not a miracle worker, I’m a janitor,” he modestly tells one of his clients. Really, he’s both. Firm co-founder Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) sends the toughest and dirtiest work Michael’s way.

Right now, that’s firm partner Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson). Edens has kept his manic depression under control for almost a decade with medication. But a particularly ugly case seems to have sent him over the edge: He strips naked during a deposition, ranting semi-coherently in favor of the opposition’s witness in the class-action lawsuit.

Michael flies down to take custody of Arthur, and it’s soon apparent that Arthur is half-crazy, half-sane, but completely full of guilt for the dirty work he’s done on behalf of corporations his whole career.

Arthur manages to elude Michael, and starts building a case for the opposition using documents he’s gotten from the firm’s client, agrochemical company U/North. But billions of dollars — and the career of the company’s in-house counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) — are at stake. So Arthur must be taken care of, by any means necessary.

We’ve seen this sort of film many times before — lawyers and corporate interests stopping at nothing to make a few bucks. Mr. Gilroy’s direction, too, owes much to the style of one of the film’s producers, Steven Soderbergh. Yet “Michael Clayton” has our hearts racing almost from beginning to end.

It’s not just that Mr. Gilroy, surrounded by pros (directors Anthony Minghella, Mr. Clooney and Mr. Pollack also serve as producers), has made one of the best films of its type. He’s managed to take a cliched genre and strip all the cliches out of it.

Michael Clayton is divorced, with a young son, of course. But no heartfelt talks with that innocent lead him to do the right thing. In fact, in a funny, sad and charming sequence, the boy (Austin Williams, a kid to watch) actually inspires Arthur by turning him onto a fantasy novel called “Realm & Conquest” that plugs into Arthur’s grandiose visions.

But what really makes this movie stand out among the rest is its understated but powerful performances. Mr. Clooney is always at ease on film, no matter what smoothie he’s playing; Mr. Gilroy wisely uses lots of close-ups of his deeply thoughtful face. Mr. Pollack can do no wrong in a role that seems written for him, while the often-wasted Mr. Wilkinson is finally given a role that puts his many talents center-stage.

Miss Swinton’s best scenes are not those in which she’s trying to intimidate, but rather the frequent glimpses we get of a powerful but still-vulnerable woman alone. She obsessively rehearses her every speech.

We don’t have to listen to her tell us what’s on her mind: When she’s locked herself in a bathroom stall, the sweat making huge stains on her impeccably-tailored shirt, we see it all — knowledge, guilt and fear.

***

TITLE: “Michael Clayton”

RATING: R (language including some sexual dialogue)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Tony Gilroy

RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes

WEB SITE: michaelclayton. warnerbros.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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