As with Into the Wild, I think I enjoyed Michael Clayton more than it deserved. (Spoilers below the fold.)
Tony Gilroy’s movie is an imitation-‘70s thriller that misses what makes the best of the paranoid-style movies wear as well as they do: Their willingness to stop just short of realism, to build rotten, conspiracy-ridden worlds that overlap with our own but aren’t necessarily identical to it. I can believe, for instance, in a shadowy Parallax Corporation that trains assassins to take down politically-inconvenient politicians precisely because the Parallax Corporation doesn’t have any exact real-world analogues. It’s a nightmarish emanation of the military-industrial complex, a 1970s version of the Hanso Foundation, not a realistic counterpart to Northrop Grumman or Texaco or United Fruit. But Michael Clayton (like The Constant Gardener, a couple years back) is too real-world for its own good: It wants to humanize its villains, in particular, and to the extent that it succeeds it kills the suspension of disbelief required for a film like this to work.
Look: A shadowy, string-pulling, Parallax-style conglomerate might order up hits on inconvenient lawyers; that I’ll buy. So might a cigar-chomping villain out of a John Grisham melodrama; sure, why not. But Tilda Swinton, as the legal counsel for the corrupt biotech company in Michael Clayton, is just too plausible, too human, too rooted in the world I know and understand, to make it believable that she would okay not only a hit but an ostentatious car bombing (!) to save her company from a potentially ruinous class action lawsuit.
I was similarly unpersuaded by Clayton’s moral awakening – again, precisely because I bought into Clooney’s performance as his law firm’s cynical fixer. More than a decade as “the janitor” for a gang of high-priced sharks, and this guy’s shocked to discover that one of his firm’s clients ran a cost-benefit analysis on a potentially toxic weed-killer and decided to go ahead with it even though it might cause cancer? “We knew this case was rotten from the start!” Sydney Pollack’s rancid boss barks disbelievingly when confronted with Clayton’s qualms, and I sympathized with his disbelief, if not his turpitude. It’s as if David Addington suddenly strolled into Dick Cheney’s office and started acting all outraged about waterboarding.
And yet I’m not sorry I saw it. I liked the film’s mood: The wintry palette, the twilit vision of New York, upstate and down, the oppressive corporate interiors. I liked the supporting cast: even the hamming-it-up Tom Wilkinson was tolerable, and I could happily watch Pollack play white-collar creeps for hours on end. I liked the dialogue: Wilkinson’s speeches felt like warmed-over Howard Beale with a little Tyler Durden thrown in, but the rest of the script was terse and profane in a way that makes you prick up your ears and really listen. And God help me, I liked Clooney: The guy’s flat-out magnetic, even if his movies aren’t. I just wish he’d play a villain, for once, and turn all that charisma loose for evil instead of spinning it into cotton candy, or disguising it for the sake of self-righteousness and Oscars. Maybe he could play a fixer who doesn’t have a crisis of conscience – in Michael Clayton: The Early Years, let’s say? I know I’d buy a ticket.