This film is now on the HBO rotation and I surprised myself when I realized I hadn’t reviewed it. It is an exceptional picture, a crisp and intelligent thriller.
Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is an attorney at a prestigious corporate law firm. But he’s no legal eagle. Rather, he’s a “fixer “, a guy who can get you a heads up on an indictment or bail out the son of a big client for a drunk and disorderly. Clayton also happens to be a gambling addict with a host of debts. This is Clooney’s best role. There’s not a hint of his bankable but often annoying, self-satisfied “you know, I’m acting” grin.
His entire persona aligns with the disappointments of his endeavors. As a fixer, he is anything but glamorous or intrepid. When called to the home of a major corporate client after being oversold by his managing partner, Clayton has to firmly tell the man (who has just fled the scene of a hit-and-run after drinking and likely engaging in infidelity) that his talents are pretty pedestrian — the client needs a good criminal lawyer and Clayton “likes” someone local for the job. When the fuming and underwhelmed client taunts Clayton with, “A miracle worker. That’s Walter on the phone twenty minutes ago. Direct quote, okay, ‘Hang tight, I’m sending you a miracle worker’”, his response is a summation of his self-worth: “Well he misspoke . . . There’s no play here. There’s no angle. There’s no champagne room. I’m not a miracle worker, I’m a janitor. The math on this is simple. The smaller the mess the easier it is for me to clean up.“
Clayton’s game is poker, which, of course it is, because it is the only game where the winner can take your money and humiliate you in the process.
Still, Clayton maintains a resolute decency and innocence as he is enveloped by a conspiracy involving the law firm’s largest client, its’ ambitious and single-minded general counsel (Tilda Swinton) and the firm’s mercurial wiz litigator (Tom Wilkinson), who goes off his meds and imperils both the corporation and the firm. Clooney is almost pathetic as he feigns sophistication while asking the firm’s managing partner if, in fact, there is something truly insidious about the corporation. A perfectly cast Sydney Pollack replies, “This is news? This case reeked from day one. Fifteen years in I gotta tell you how we pay the rent?“
This is a legal thriller that more than meets both bars. The story is engrossing and writer-director Tony Gilroy must have spent some time in a modern law firm, because he has the milieu, the patter, and the casual arrogance of the place down cold. Big time law firms are funny places, populated by very smart people who convince themselves they are priests, and damned if they don’t attract their own sort of worshipful congregations.
Nominated for Best Picture in 2007, unfortunately for Gilroy and the film, the same year as No Country for Old Men.