Clooney in Clayton: The truth can be mediocre

Ultimately, however, the film doesn’t add much to what Steven Soderbergh already said in Erin Brockovich, and doesn’t quite reach its noble attempt to be on par with the classic ’70s social commentary-laden dramas it tries to imitate, such as Sidney Lumet’s Network.,Screenwriter Tony Gilroy, best known for writing the adaptation for The Bourne Identity and its sequels, shows some promise in his directorial debut, Michael Clayton, a low-key thriller starring George Clooney.

Ultimately, however, the film doesn’t add much to what Steven Soderbergh already said in Erin Brockovich, and doesn’t quite reach its noble attempt to be on par with the classic ’70s social commentary-laden dramas it tries to imitate, such as Sidney Lumet’s Network.

Clayton (Clooney) is a “fixer” at the prestigious New York law firm, Kenner, Bach Ledeen’s, whose job is to handle the dirtiest and most questionably ethical client cases. He is widely respected and relied upon by the firm’s founder, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack). In a typically ironic Hollywood fashion, Clayton, who is talented at solving other people’s problems but is incapable of dealing with his own personal demons.

In the opening 15 minutes, we are introduced to a mess of a man. Clooney, amid a high-stakes poker game in Chinatown, speaks of his divorce, his gambling problems, his troubled brother and his debt to the mob over a failed restaurant business venture. The problem with this is that we are “told” of these issues by Clayton and not “shown” until later, which causes the audience to lose interest.

Clayton soon gets a call from the office to come to the aid of a panicking bourgeois client over a “hit and run” case. In a bizarre moment of forced symbolism, Clayton sees his fancy new car explode, and the film flashes backward in time to five days prior. This part of the story structure is created for no real reason other than for shock value, adding very little dramatic suspense

The triggering incident begins when Clayton is called upon to fix a problem within his own law firm. He is sent to calm down his friend and confidant Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a senior litigator representing the multi-national agribusiness corporation U/North against a class-action lawsuit. Overwhelmed with guilt, Arthur loses his mind, sabotaging the multi-million dollar settlement after he discovers that U/North knowingly poisoned its customers with its fertilizers. Clayton, however, fails to control the situation and Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), an in-house U/North litigator whose career depends on the success of the case, opts to take extreme measures.

Some credit should be given to Gilroy. Although the story structure of his original script is formulaic, it has a few moments of unpredictability. The dialogue is well written and the characters are three-dimensional, with clever motivation behind them. Arthur is insane yet smart. Clayton’s faults are complex yet elicit pathos. Karen’s malicious plans are a bit far-fetched, but plausible. The twisty narrative also rewards an audience that pays close attention, similar to Syriana.

Gilroy learned the crafts of screenwriting and directing the old-fashioned way, by being an avid moviegoer himself. He used Boston and its retrospective theaters as his cinematic education.

In an opening address before the Boston screening of Michael Clayton, Gilroy said his “formative foundation” in filmmaking came from his years living in Boston while attending Boston University.

He reminisced about the many excellent arthouse theatres in the Boston area, such as Coolidge Corner Theater, the Brattle and the former Orson Welles Cinema (R.I.P. 1986). Many of the films he saw in these theatres were the films he discussed with Clooney when Michael Clayton was merely a script. These talks over shining dramas of the ’70s convinced Clooney to take a chance with the first time director.

Although the film is set amongst the backdrop of a top NYC law firm filled with the rich and white, it is still very disappointing to see Gilroy use an all-white cast for both lead and supporting roles.

The film has one-line speaking caricatures for a black woman who plays Clayton’s secretary and an Asian man as one of the law firm’s young green attorneys, all of whom are subservient characters. In this day and age, directors should be trying to diversify their cast with characters other than token minorities.

As far as the directing, the biggest problem is in the pacing of the film itself, which can on occasion become painfully slow and boring. When there isn’t a plot point, Gilroy just wastes time repeating information the audience already knows to other characters. This could be helped by simply scrapping the repeated information, thereby jumping to the next plot point and advancing the story.

The score is uninspired, but the cinematography by Robert Elswit is quite impressive. The contrasting of rigid shots of cold, de-saturated corporate colors with warmer handheld shots of Clayton and his surroundings when he is off the clock are noteworthy.

Despite its problems with story structure and pacing, the film has great acted dialogue, an interesting ensemble of a cast, and a few twists and turns. This is a somewhat auspicious debut for Gilroy.

Michael Clayon will please fans of George Clooney’s recent succession of vehicles, such as Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana and The Good German, not action enthusiasts who enjoyed the visceral thrills of the Bourne films. With the exception of one car explosion, Clayton is much more civil.