You shouldn’t be surprised that Michael Clayton is currently being overrated by America’s film critics. The movie practically begs for it.

It sticks out because it’s a throwback, the sort of legal thriller that Hollywood stopped churning out by the dozens because the movie industry lost faith in its ability to market movies like these. It also stars George Clooney, who has made a concerted and rather successful effort to make his name synonymous not just with movie stardom but with high-quality escapism pitched at educated, discriminating audiences. The biggest reason the movie is overrated, though, is that it’s actually pretty good. No, it doesn’t reinvent the genre or pack any mind-blowing plot twists or raise any provocative hot-button issues. Had it come out in 1987 instead of 2007, it wouldn’t look as special. That’s why talk of this movie being a masterpiece is out of line. Still, Michael Clayton is honest entertainment value for your nine bucks, and that’s honorable in its own right.

Clooney portrays the title character, a self-described “janitor” at a high-powered New York corporate law firm. He’s officially a consultant, but his real job is dispensing bribes, making veiled threats, and otherwise operating under the table to clean up the legal messes of rich clients, “from shoplifting housewives to bent Congressmen.” The mess that changes his life, however, comes from within his own firm. Top litigator Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) is taking a deposition when he starts raving about filth and disease, then strips naked and runs around until the cops arrest him. Arthur’s representing an agricultural conglomerate called United Northfield in a $3 billion class-action suit, so Michael’s assigned to reassure U/North by having Arthur committed to a mental institution. This is no easy feat since, as Michael points out, the firm’s designated expert on this procedure is Arthur himself.


In between his meetings with the jittery client and the increasingly unstable Arthur, the details of Michael’s unenviable existence slowly come to light. He’s a divorced guy with a son he barely sees and an old gambling problem that still troubles him on bad days. His bosses appreciate his work but not enough to make him partner after 17 years at the firm. His retirement money has just gone down the tubes — he made the mistake of going into business with his brother (David Lansbury), who has a taste for alcohol and drugs. First-time director and longtime screenwriter Tony Gilroy reveals the pieces of Michael’s backstory at different times and in different ways and lets us fit them all together. He employs the same cagey strategy when revealing whether Arthur is indeed mentally ill and why he’s dangerous to U/North. By doing so, Gilroy places a level of trust in our intelligence that most Hollywood filmmakers don’t display. That’s gratifying.

As the sharply drawn Michael, Clooney pulls an excellent “I really hate my job” face at various points and shows proper force in the awesome climactic scene. Still, this role needed a shadier and more vulnerable actor, one more at home with the moral ambiguity of a man whose financial straits and bad habits make him ripe to be bought off. Any one of a dozen leading men would have better fit the part, as well as a few leading ladies. I would’ve liked to see Holly Hunter in a movie called Michelle Clayton, but that’s me. The unheralded supporting cast upstages the star, though Clooney abets them with his well-documented ability to play off other actors. Wilkinson does fine edgy work, and Sydney Pollack turns in a typically effortless-looking performance as the firm’s senior partner. Best of all is Tilda Swinton, who finally delivers a truly great performance in a major Hollywood film (we all knew she could do it) as Karen Crowder, the U/North in-house legal counsel who decides that a few discreet murders need to be committed for business purposes. Without the benefit of any dialogue that spells it out, Swinton creates a character who orders people killed to protect not just the bottom line but also her standing as the favored protegée of the company’s founder, Don Jeffries (Ken Howard). That psychological dependency comes through in her final confrontation with Michael, the fear sparking in her eyes only when Don walks in on them — she cares less for her own welfare than about her mentor possibly finding out what she’s been up to. This beautifully nuanced villain, whom we first see suffering a full-on panic attack in a ladies’ room, is so much more intriguing than the usual soulless corporate suits who serve as bad guys in these movies.

Gilroy’s unobtrusive direction frames these performances well, and he films the single on-screen death in a disturbingly matter-of-fact way. He slips up occasionally — I wish the plot hadn’t turned on a shocking piece of ineptitude by U/North’s hired killers. Yet his largely scrupulous work gives new meaning and power to this story of a sellout who locates the shred of personal integrity that he isn’t willing to sell and helps Michael Clayton give a good name to old-fashioned drama.

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Michael Clayton
Starring George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, and Tom Wilkinson. Written and directed by Tony Gilroy. Rated R.