Tense Foray Into Big Business Corruption
Sunday October 21, 2007
MICHAEL CLAYTONRated: MAStarring: George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Sydney Pollack.Critic's warning: Extreme language, violence.Critic's rating: 8/10MICHAEL CLAYTON wants to emulate those great 1960s and '70s movies that revelled in punchy dialogue about adult anxiety and big-business corruption. While you'll occasionally wish that incendiary Sean Penn or Edward Norton had played the title role, co-producer and star Clooney's recent determined efforts to bring back intelligent adult dramas earns him so much goodwill that you don't begrudge him nabbing this juicy part.Clooney plays the smooth Mr Fix-it - or "janitor", as he dryly calls himself - of a 600-employee New York law firm. As the film begins Clayton exits a high-stakes poker game to sort out the hit-and-run mess of an important client. Meanwhile his boss (Pollack) and hundreds of employees are closing the deal on a $3 billion law suit involving water contamination and an agricultural products manufacturer. As Clayton returns to work he's given an unpleasant reminder that no one is irreplaceable in big business.Flashback to four days earlier. The firm's lead lawyer on the contamination case (Wilkinson) has a spectacular meltdown (think frenzied shouting) while interviewing witnesses. The agri-business's top adviser (Swinton) is naturally not impressed.Clayton is called in to whip the lawyer into shape but soon discovers those around him want the problem eliminated, not solved.And so it goes: two hours of tense men and women growing even more tense. Frankly, the set-up is nothing special. It's the kind of moral dilemma US crime television shows knock off in 42 minutes (excluding ads). And without revealing any specifics of the final shot, the closing image has been done too many times to really surprise (still, stay until the film fades to black - the shot lingers nicely through the credits).The real pleasure for adult viewers is in kicking back and enjoying the pertinent, pithy asides on burn-out, sell-out and corporate (ir)responsibility. As always, Clooney has to work hard to look desperate and the film succeeds more as a portrait of business behaviour rather than as a portrait of a man.Still, you can see Clooney's lack of dramatic fire countered by his graceful concession to superb UK imports Swinton and Wilkinson. Swinton's highly strung, psychotically anxious lawyer is one of the most interesting women seen on screen in years. In The Bedroom star Wilkinson's American accent is as phoney as ever but he's masterly at crack-ups.And let's not forget actor Pollack, director of 1970s adult dramas such as Three Days Of The Condor. There's something about Pollack's real-life authoritarian aura - see him as the boss in Changing Lanes - that always makes him believable.Tony Gilroy, writer of the three Bourne Identity movies, interestingly doesn't try to razzle up the action in this, his directorial debut.Instead his rangy relaxed style, spare music score and brooding settings artfully explore alienation and despair in modern workplaces, where much ruthless business is conducted after hours.
© 2007 Sun Herald