A while back, I watched two of my friends play a game. The game was called Magic Chess, which was much like regular chess except that a deck of cards was incorporated in to give the pieces moves different than those of a usual chess game. What I remember most about the game, is that it felt like it took an eternity for them to finally start playing…so much so that I’d wager you could play two games of regular chess before my friends had even made their first move. My friends assured me, that while it took a long time to set all the pieces on the board, it was a good game. MICHAEL CLAYTON also takes a long time to set all the pieces on the board, but it’s also a good game.
As a game MICHAEL CLAYTON uses four players. Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) is co-founder of Bach & Leeden, a law firm that has been working on defending a company called U/North from a class action lawsuit for the last six years. He’s playing to keep his clients happy and preserve the prosperity of his very successful firm. Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), is a litigator for U/North. She is playing to keep her company out of potential ruin, and hoping Bach & Leeden can quietly settle.She’s more than certainly also playing to keep her slightly-less-prosperous job.
Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) is a leading Bach & Leeden attorney. When we join the game, he seems to have decided that he doesn’t want to play anymore…and he strips down naked during a deposition to prove it. And finally there’s Michael Clayton (George Clooney), a ‘fixer’, ‘janitor’, perhaps a ‘spin-master’ for the firm. He’s playing to try and save the game from Edens’ actions, and while he’d rather not play anymore either – he’s a good player, so he keeps playing.
As I mentioned, those four players take a long time to get all the pieces on to the board. The suit itself is a tad on the vague side for the first forty minutes or so, as are Edens’ motives. Clayton wants to pin the whole situation on chemical imbalance (he might make a great Hollywood PR rep)…but Edens doesn’t want to leave it at that. This doesn’t work well for Clayton, since truthfully he has his own personal problems, and would much rather clean up this mess quickly and move on. However Bach insists Clayton do what he’s good at, and get the whole situation contained. Crowder on the other hand, feels that Clayton can’t possibly fix the situation quietly, and resorts to other, less moral methods, of resolving the entire situation.
As I watched George Clooney in this movie, I couldn’t help but think that he’s primarily been playing the same part for ten years now; the charismatic guy who’s always in control, whether he’s a soldier, a crook, or a lawyer. He has his trademark expression- chin down, eyes up -and it works its way into every part he plays. What I’ve seldom seen, is Clooney convincingly play scared, and Clooney convincingly play sad. In MICHAEL CLAYTON, he does both…in both occurrences without saying a word, and in both occurrences he does so convincingly.
For my money, the best acting in the movie comes from Tom Wilkinson. His character of Edens is supposed to be chemically unbalanced, but when an actor tries to portray that, there’s a big risk of going too far with it and just acting nuts. Wilkinson gets it just right, by properly combining being frightened with being manic. What’s more, in his best moment of the film, he subtly shuts down both, and gives us a glimpse of just how in control he is. Wilkinson has a rambling off-camera monologue that starts the movie, and he delivers it with a panicked precision, setting the table for his entire part.
MICHAEL CLAYTON is a good drama. It’s the sort of grown-up movie that isn’t made much anymore. The sort of adult thriller that SYRIANA wanted to be before it caved in under the weight of its own earnestness. It won’t be the sort of mass-pleasing drama that WE OWN THE NIGHT is likely to be, but it’s thoughtful, methodical, and well constructed. If I have one complaint about it, it’s that the trailer gives away the big payoff. The final scene that takes place is a good one, and it could have been a great one had I not known it was coming. I’ll never understand why studios make decisions like this. It’s a lot like watching a game where you know which player will score the winning goal. Who wants to watch a game like that?