Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Cleaner's Dirty Hands

Michael Clayton

Ivorismo Rating: ****

George Clooney has finally found a script worthy of his unique talent. Lurking behind the ubër cool of the Oceans 11/12 franchise, the T.V. doctor, and, literally, scores of mere bagatelles of situation comedies and, hundreds of sportive cameos, we all knew that there was a less slick, more ruthless incubus growing inside Clooney, burning to be let loose. This performance, however, is no mere dalliance. George Clooney is Michael Clayton! They are one and the same.

To say George Clooney brings a veneered, relentless force to the title role of Michael Clayton is an estimable understatement. Clayton is a fixer for a powerful law firm. He labors incognito. “Everybody knows who you are. Everybody that needs to know,” says his ruthless boss, Marty, before sending him off on another covert mission. A powerful secret prince of New York City, Michael works in the shadows, cleaning up the messes made by other rich, powerful people. If a gentile had fixed the World Series, that gentile would have been Michael Clayton. Always the realist, he tells other lawyer’s clients what they don't want to hear. He kills rich folks’ fantasies, lets them know exactly where the limits of their power end. In one particularly resonant scene, a client guilty of a hit-and-run complains bitterly that he was told Clayton was a miracle worker. "I'm not a miracle worker," Clayton sighs, like he’s got dog shit smeared on the soles of his Brooks Brothers wing-tips. “I’m a janitor."

Clooney looks like he’s modeling for the cover of Esquire. It's the right look: Boxy conservative suit, power tie, clean shaven, pomaded hair in place: All the better because Clayton spends equal time being dirty and disheveled because a lot of things have gone walkabout in his life. Amicably divorced, a man of routine, he drives his son to school every morning, hangs with him on Saturdays. His life looks prosperous, but the purring Mercedes Benz is leased by the firm and the restaurant he bought for his crackhead brother has just closed. He needs $75,000 pronto or the Irish Outfit will whack his brother, Timmy. Girlfriend? None. A lot of wisecracks about a gambling addiction he may, or may not have, overcome. Hanging around high-stakes poker games in Chinatown seems to be a masochistic way for Clayton to test himself. Yet, throughout it all, Clayton is zen calm. Waiting for his next clean-up gig.

Clayton works with Marty Bach, the head partner in the law firm. As Bach, Sydney Pollack’s performance oozes authority, cynicism and a dark, sarcastic intelligence. Clayton’s big mission is to handle one of Bach's top partners. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson). Edens has gone ape shit berserk, stripping naked in Milwaukee during a deposition hearing and then running through a parking lot in the snow. We see the video of this deposition and it is not a pretty sight. One wincing witness is Karen Crowder, the chief legal executive for one of Marty Bach's most important clients, a corporation being sued for its malicious pollution of the well water supply somewhere in Wisconsin. The bottom line of this plot is that the corporation is guilty and is being sued for billions. The law firm knows it is guilty( it is being paid millions to run the defense), when, suddenly, Arthur Edens has his freak-out epiphany and realizes he holds the smoking gun of his own clients and partners guilt in his hands. That the corporation decides to bump Arthur off is no surprise. The way in which Clayton, ostensibly only brought in to fumigate and fix the mess, inadvertently gets sucked into this quagmire of deceit and then also becomes a target for the corporation’s death squad is masterfully plotted by the film’s writer/director Tony Gilroy.

Enough of the plot. In naming the film after Michael Clayton, Gilroy insinuates that the story centers on his life and loyalties. The son of a cop, once a cop himself, Clayton has been brilliant in law school and as a prosecutor in the state Attorney General’s Organized Crime Task Force. So brilliant was Clayton that he became not the prosecutor or public defender of lore; instead, he’s the Fixer/Lawyer Supreme. In one of his supreme fixer-deluxe moments, Michael is rescued by his detective brothers-in-law. This unnamed Irish cop with huge saddlebags under his jaded eyes, gets the best soliloquy in a movie scripted with a curt muscularity. “Everybody’s fooled,” he hisses at Michael. “You’ve got all these cops thinkin’ you’re a lawyer and all the lawyers thinkin’ you’re a cop. You’ve got everybody fooled. Everybody but you.” How odd then that this incredibly successful man from a Working Class background leads an existence that feels deeply hollow. His life is his work punctuated by glistening moments of family togetherness. There's a lovely bit where, celebrating his father’s birthday, Clayton gets one of his cleaner calls. You expect him to leave, do that familiar job-over-family trope; yet, instead, a withering bit of sarcasm from his sister carries the real muscle in the family and he stays. Why he stays--guilt, love, both--is less important than the notion that there’s still a lot of good in Michael Clayton despite his dirty hands.

The mumbled shards of familiarity exchanged with his painfully obsequious crackhead brother, Timmy, as Michael leaves the party, show the inexorable grinding of the gears of responsibility. Bereft of all self-respect, a creature of contempt: Is this pitiful man with a price on his head worthwhile saving when he threatens to destroy both Clayton’s family and job? Well (Sigh!), Michael Clayton is his brother’s keeper! Clooney’s Clayton is in many ways a modern mirror of John Wayne’s lonesome noble warrior of the West, his steed a Mercedes with a GPS device. He doesn’t gamble any more, we learn, although in a kinky masochistic sort of way Clayton likes to dawdle around games. Still, he’s certainly not the archetypal self-pitying Irish boozer we might expect him to be, either. There’s no wife or girlfriend or half-full bottle of Jameson’s, just the scores of folks he looks after.

The legal thriller has been rendered formulaic by John Grisham and an army of imitators over the last 20 years. High stakes corporate and political hijinx melds with recent American history in Grisham’s work. The reader, far more easily seduced than the writer’s characters, by the corporate empires, elegant women, fast cars, and conveniently filed paperwork, cash money and craftily hidden clues, knows the formula. Gilroy, having long paid his dues writing adaptations of other people’s novels and ideas, shaping successful scripts like Armageddon, Proof of Life, The Devil’s Advocate, and the three Jason Bourne movies out of other peoples work, knows how to take something bland and render it unique. Directing from his own script for the first time, Gilroy takes every legal thriller cliché and throws it into the washing machine. Beginning neither at the beginning, nor the end, Gilroy revs the clutch and throws us into the plot about 2/3rds of the way through, spinning a yarn of red herring about a gambling problem and a debt of honor before reversing to the beginning and speeding through an ocean of wicked shenanigans. There’s deadly well-water pollution going on in Wisconsin and the evil corporation knows no limits when the stakes are high. Sound familiar? Well yes and no. Gilroy is clever enough not to get bogged down in any kind of message mode concerning corporate pollution. His movie is not about the plot so much as how the two lawyers, the fixer-versus-the corporate-assassin, and, ultimately, unavoidably, good-versus-evil, travel to their showdown.

What keeps this perfect Swiss-watch of a script a step from perfection is the vapid one-note performance of the albino-like English actress, Tilda Swinton. She is dreadful. Her American accent the sum opposite of Dick Van Dyke’s cockney in Mary Poppins. There are no accidents in good scripts and, when we first meet Swinton’s corporate killer of a lawyer, Karen Crowder, she is girding her loins for the approaching showdown, sniffing at her armpits. This brilliant bit of business, had it been interpreted by a performer of intelligence, could have supplied an edifice of emotion to her character. Instead of showing us clues concerning Crowder's utter lack of scruple--How could something so rotten and uninhibited exist in her?--Swinton conjures up a millionairess tot who's had her lollipop pilfered. Swinton sniffs, mopes, trembles and snarls like some pantomime parody of Medea. By the time the showdown arrives, Swinton is bereft of ideas; Karen Crowder has melted down into a series of blinks, trembles, whispers and hissing noises. Having been vanquished by Clayton, bathed in fluorescent sterility, her answer to his boast that he is “Shiva the God of death’ is to sink to the thick corporate carpet on all fours. I’ve seen this brilliant movie four times now and, as is my wont, have taken to closing my eyes, disappearing Ms. Swinton and replacing her with Kathy Baker, Jody Foster or Joaquin Phoenix. I can dream, right?

No comments: