Friday, February 22, 2008

"I Am Shiva, the God of Death"

I guess I ought to stop fighting the urge and just turn my blog over to Oscar Week. I don't really give a shit about the awards (the Golden Globes seem more reliable), except that they bring a lot of attention to moviemaking, and inevitably there are good shows that bubble to the top. This past year seems to have offered up an extraordinary crop of substantial films. I've not seen all of them, of course, but I've seen more than I usually manage, and now I can't help thinking about how I'd rank these entries myself. I'll have to chew on that and maybe put up a separate post with my picks.

But for now, Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton. I saw this movie a couple months ago and wrote a review at that time, but my review was lost when my computer crashed and I couldn't quite remember enough of the details to reconstitute it once I had my machine back. So I waited to get a copy of the DVD, and here we are. I really liked the movie the first time around, and on second viewing it's even better than I remember.

I have a mixed reaction to lawyer movies, which surprises even me a bit since the law fascinates me in concept. And though I don't watch too much TV, my favorite show is the original Law & Order, mostly because of the legal wrangling. But it seems a little too easy to just pluck a boilerplate drama from some legal case and insert the standard fireworks scenes, a mechanism used by television forever, and by John Grisham over and over again to amass an obscene fortune. Michael Clayton plays like a standard Grisham story, though the film has an original screenplay by director Gilroy. The story doesn't rewrite any rules or step outside the standard Grisham template, but Gilroy (mostly known to us for penning the three Bourne screenplays) still hits every right note here.

George Clooney stars in the eponymous role, playing a longtime employee at the high-powered New York law firm of Kenner Bach and Ledeen. He's a "fixer," the guy sent into the teetering meltdown to avert disaster (like the legal-profession version of Harvey Keitel's "Mr. Wolfe" in Pulp Fiction). The law firm is representing big agricultural conglomerate UNorth in a class action lawsuit where they are accused of producing and marketing a product (an herbicide, I think) which sickens and kills people. The case has dragged on for years, and has involved, from our law firm's perspective, several hundred of the firm's lawyers and tens of thousands of billable hours--millions and millions of dollars. Now, as they are nearing what promises to be a multi-billion dollar settlement of the lawsuit, KBL's star lawyer who is spearheading the effort, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkenson in another quirky, letter-perfect performance), has a rips-his-clothes-off-in-public meltdown and threatens a catastrophic derailment. Michael Clayton is called in to figure out what the hell is going on and salvage things before it all goes South. Clayton and Edens know each other from years of working together, and Clayton expects he can bring Edens back to sanity. Edens seems to have had an attack of conscience, something apparently unlikely to afflict the relentlessly pragmatic Clayton. But as the two men talk he begins to wonder whether Edens is really off the deep end after all. (It doesn't help that the fiercely intelligent Edens is a manic-depressive who has willfully stopped taking his pills. When Clayton tries as a first step to get Edens back on his meds, Edens with a very clear mind refuses, saying that he's only now begun to think and feel clearly again. The question is tacitly raised whether the legal profession itself is toxic.)

The UNorth counsel and the spokesperson for the conglomerate in this and other legal matters is Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), an ambitious young attorney who seems to have been hand-picked to take the fall and who is quite out of her depth. The pressures on her are almost unimaginable: the implosion of this lawsuit might be a bad thing for Kenner Bach and Ledeen, but it would be a nuclear meltdown catastrophe for UNorth and its seventy thousand employees; Michael Clayton and his boss (played by the subtly ominous Sydney Pollock) are under the pressure of a bad situation, but Karen Crowder faces what almost stacks up like global destruction. She manages to keep her game face on in public, but in private we see her coming apart. As the situation unravels, it seems clear that her limits will inevitably be found and exceeded.

As I get older I find that my cynicism about big business grows and grows. This film strikes a resonant chord for me since it's so easy to believe that everyone is evil, the big chemical conglomerate and the high-octane law firm both. The extreme spin and nuance (and expense) of UNorth's legal defense and the polished media presentations about the company are necessary exactly because they both seek to conceal plain truth. And yet when enough money is at stake it becomes the tail that wags the dog. Hence the drama: one man's moral epiphany--that he has devoted a significant part of his life to defending something which is profoundly, demonstrably wrong--threatens the papier maché foundation, it seems, of the modern world itself.

Any ideas about the law being a realm of glamor and glory gets the stuffing roundly beaten out of it here. These are all miserable, overwrought people, so consumed by their jobs that they don't have the time or spare brain cells to assess how unhappy they are. Sure, Michael Clayton ferries himself around in a new Mercedes S-Class, but he seems always exhausted and underslept and about 30 seconds from slashing his wrists. And he's one of the saner ones. It puts me in a little panic to think about all these people well into middle age--like myself--people who have put years into things which won't wash away when--if--they wake up one day and realize this was not a worthwhile use of their lives. I relate to Arthur Edens absolutely. And to Michael Clayton a bit too. But Edens is in possession of the moral high ground here.

George Clooney may be the Cary Grant of our day. He's impossibly good looking, cuts a dashing figure and moves gracefully (though not quite with Grant's effortless, dancer's floating quality), and he's believable in his roles. But he's more versatile than Cary Grant--contrast this movie with, say, O Brother Where Art Thou? There's a sense that comes through all his roles that even out of character he just doesn't take himself or his situation too seriously. This is about the juiciest role that Clooney's had, and it seems as though the character was conceived with him in mind. It's a perfect fit. Maybe as an actor he can't do everything; but he does THIS really well, and that's quite enough.

But the real treasure is Tilda Swinton. Her Karen Crowder is a woman teetering on the edge of ruin. Crowder is well-schooled at playing tough when she needs to (a skill at which, it bears saying, Michael Clayton also excels) but we see in her private moments that she is seriously at the end of her rope, struggling day after day on a fraction of the sleep she needs to sell things she doesn't believe deep down. But no matter what one believes, there must be limits to what one is willing to sacrifice for those beliefs--particularly if we're talking business ethics. And when a really difficult decision must be made, she is set down a path of no return. Arthur Edens has a meltdown because he begins to see through the web of lies and spin he has masterminded; Karen Crowder's meltdown would be a one way trip down and out.

This is a magnetic, deftly-directed movie. Even the second time I could not take my eyes off the screen. It has a fresh, current look without being Paul Greengrass trendy. I don't think it quite has the substance to get my nod for the year's best picture, at least not over some of this year's more ambitious stories; but it's enough to me that it's close to the mark. In many another year it would take the prize.

Grade: A-


Jeffy said...

I am amazed that I am almost current in my movie viewing - I also watched Michael Clayton last night, although in my case it was for the first time.

Like you, I also thought this was a pretty good movie, but I did have a few gripes about it.

One was with the way the movie jumped around in time. In general I don't like it when a movie presents a story in a non-linear fashion (I think Pulp Fiction is the only example I can think of where I thought it worked well). There was not a lot of this in this movie, but it rather bugged me that a critical part of the climax of the movie was shown at the very beginning. What a way to minimize the impact when the events unfold later at the end of the movie.

It also bothered me a bit that some of the details were a little hard to follow. I realize that there is always a fine line that has to be walked between explaining every little thing that happens and leaving the viewers in the dark, but I am generally happy to lose a little bit of veracity to have things made clear to me. In this movie there were several things that were just a bit too obscure for me, and while they became clear toward the end it bothered me that I was partially lost at many times in the movie.

In the end, though, I did find that I enjoyed this movie quite a bit. I would also agree that the performances were quite good, but I won't be making any Oscar predictions, since this is the only one of the nominees that I've seen.

wunelle said...

I'm with you, I think, with the non-linear timeline thing. I can only speculate that with such a standard legal thriller plotline, this is a mechanism to keep us off balance just a bit. The explosion in the beginning charges everything that follows, but of course we don't initially know how / why / who.

I remember seeing an interview with Robert Altman talking about (one of my very favorite movies) Gosford Park, and he was very specific in cultivating a certain amount of confusion and mayhem. In the beginning of that movie, you wander thru a huge country house with about 25 people all talking at once, and you can hear only bits and pieces of things. That, he said, is what it would be in real life. And only later will things begin to make sense and (if he's lucky and / or good) you'll remember the details which didn't click in initially.

Whether Tony Gilroy is doing this, or whether the movie just has some confusing elements, I can't say.

But I did enjoy it, the second time more than the first.

Jeffy said...

I especially don't care for the old 'confusion device' where the filmmaker basically says "let's confuse the audience so that they get a feel for the situation the characters are in". I see that sort of device being used way too often for me. I don't want to be confused - I want to understand the story. I don't think it was used too heavily in this movie, but I am a bit sensitive to it and don't like it in any amount. This is different from not clueing the viewer in to things that will be revealed later - I think it is fine to hold some mysteries in reserve, but to have things happening on screen that are intentionally designed to leave the viewer confused seems a bit cheap to me.

I may have to take advantage of Blockbuster's lax rental deadlines and watch it again, now that I know what is going on.