Difficult to assess what Academy voters were thinking when they Oscar-nominated Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton (2007) as Best Picture. A more pedestrian would-be thriller without so much as an ounce of originality has not been made by Hollywood in some time. The film, a run-of-the-mill 'corrupt corporation vs. the law' melodrama, stars George Clooney as the infamous title character; a self professed legal ‘janitor’ who is assigned to clean up bureaucratic messes as they occur.
Relegated as a legal hack, Michael’s personal life is also something of a mess. Divorced with a son and bankrupted by a failed attempt at a bar and restaurant venture, Michael’s running on empty. His one redemptive quality is that he is an honest man who truly believes in his friend, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson).
That friendship is put to the test after Arthur suddenly has a mental breakdown in the middle of contract negotiations on a fifteen year lawsuit with 450 litigants. Arthur begins spouting diatribes and platitudes during a deposition, then gets naked, then follows the plaintiffs and their attorney into the parking lot. Thankfully, we only get to see Wilkinson’s top half sans shirt. Not to sound petty, but the actor’s talents lay elsewhere.
Michael’s boss, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) attempts to do damage control after the incident by sending Michael to straighten out the wrinkles with barracuda lawyer, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton). Unimpressed by Michael’s glib moral attitude toward the whole debacle, Karen decides to take matters into her own hands. She hires a pair of high priced techno-thugs, Mr. Verne (Robert Prescott) and Mr. Iker (Terry Serpico) to do a frame-up suicide/murder after Arthur informs everyone by phone that he has secret access to an action memorandum from their client that clearly reveals the corporation had implicit knowledge that their ‘undisclosed farm product’ possessed all the harmful fallout of a known carcinogen.
The story is told in flashback with a foiled car bomb attempt on Michael’s life leading to a series of regressive memories that trigger the rest of the narrative to unravel. Working from his own script, director Gilroy makes the least out of suspense-less elements. Evidently attempting to pull a Pulp Fiction of sorts, the first fifteen minutes of his film are a series of confusing snippets taken out of context from the rest of the story. The audience only gains insight into their relevancy during the last fifteen of the film’s running time.
Aside: Part of the thrill in any thriller is usually to keep the audience at least one jump ahead of the central characters in the story – thus, ensuring that nail-biting ‘don’t go in there’ quality that has everyone on the edge of their seats. Michael Clayton is void of such tension. As example; Arthur’s murder occurs quite suddenly and out of no where without any build up or even purpose. After all, why kill him when the whole world thinks he’s nuttier than a fruitcake?
Quite inexplicably, the center of Gilroy’s narrative regresses into an exculpatory and pointless glimpse into Michael’s extended family, and, the very brief reveal of a girl (Katherine Waterston) who was to have been Arthur’s star witness before he met with an untimely end. The girl contains no shocking evidence to pass along, although her very appearance seems enough to get Michael thinking about his friend’s staged death.
Clooney is as Clooney does; never quite assimilating into any role he’s ever played but rather adding himself to the repertory company as a stock character. Ditto for Pollack, whose forte is clearly directing – not acting! Wilkinson steals ever scene he’s in, though as an actor this isn’t his finest hour. Swinton has precious little to do but look emotionally disheveled and gawky. She does both rather nicely.
In the final analysis, Michael Clayton is as dull an entertainment as it is unworthy of its Best Picture nomination. True, 2007 was hardly a year populated by inspired cinema – but on the whole there is nothing extraordinary about this film. Period!
Warner Home Video’s anamorphic widescreen DVD (there is also a full frame edition) delivers a sharp and nicely contrasted image in keeping with the highly stylized low lighting of the original theatrical exhibition. Flesh tones appear just a tad too pink for this reviewer’s liking. The theatrical experience had more desaturation with flesh appearing a ghostly dull mauve-ish blue. Fine details are evident even during the darkest scenes. There is however more than a hint of edge enhancement during several scenes.
The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and quite potent, with a very subtle spread. This is essentially a dialogue driven movie. Apart from the car bomb explosion, there is precious little to exercise one’s surround sound to its fullest potential. Extras are limited to four individual audio commentary tracks – at least two saying pretty much the same thing. After enduring a litany of previews we don’t even get the original theatrical trailer for our feature presentation as a supplement. Ho-hum.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)