In the final shot of Michael Clayton, George Clooney gets in a cab in midtown New York and says, “Give me 50 bucks worth.” He doesn’t care where he’s going, doesn’t have a plan or a purpose. He just sits there, staring out the window while the camera lingers and the credits roll. It might not seem like much an ending, but it provides far more resolution satisfaction than anything in the story proper, and it’s a nearly perfect encapsulation of everything that works (and everything that doesn’t) about the film. Yes, odd as it may sound, Michael Clayton is a good movie — not a great one, but quite good — about George Clooney’s face.
Say what you will about Clooney, but he’s a class-A star: magnetic, eminently watchable, and easy to identity with. A good star sells the generic movie-star product, that effortlessly glamorous thing that is modern celebrity. But the best stars, and Clooney surely counts, rise above that to become luxury brands unto themselves. When Clooney sits down in that cab, looking lost, weary, like a man who sees hopelessness on the horizon and knows he’s headed right for it, it doesn’t really matter what he’s really doing — for all anyone knows he could be pondering global warming, or his private jet rental, or how unfair it was when his daddy lost his congressional race — because he’s selling you something entrancing, something captivating, something you can’t get anywhere else: 100-percent pure, unfiltered Clooney. Liberal politics or no, the man’s an old-school monopolist.
Oh sure, there are other performers in the movie, fine actors all. Sydney Pollack, essentially reprising his Eyes Wide Shut role, delivers a crisp, cool turn as a high-powered New York law-firm boss. Tom Wilkinson stalks around the Lower East Side as a conveniently crazy senior partner. And Tilda Swinton does a rather remarkable job of putting on a show of false confidence as a corporate counsel hit with a class-action lawsuit. But even these strong performers are minor celestial bodies, dim and forgettable when compared with the light of a true star. Writer-director Tony Gilroy uses close-ups of Clooney’s face like musical refrains, as if conducting Variations on George: See George sad, angry, concerned, anxious, and destitute (there’s no happy George here). Whichever one Gilroy chooses, it’s tough to look away.
Not that you’d want necessarily want to. Gilroy, who helped script the Bourne series, has put together a tense, terse legal thriller, managing the impressive trick of making corporate litigation nearly as exciting as international spycraft. Clooney plays the title character, a “fixer” at a top-tier New York legal shop. His firm has been slogging away for six years as the defense team for a large weed-killer company involved in a class action lawsuit. But when Wilkinson’s character, the lead attorney in the case and also a manic depressive, goes bonkers in the midst of testimony (he literally strips off his clothes during the proceedings), Clooney is called in to take care of the situation. But Clooney, as he continually reminds people, isn’t a miracle worker. He’s “just a janitor,” so the chemical company’s lawyer (Swinton) begins to take things into her own hands.
This being Hollywood (and Clooney’s Hollywood at that), that fabled, glittering land where people spend $100 million animating toy robots, live in eight-figure mansions, and throw six-figure parties — there’s a strong undercurrent of Serious Concern about all those nasty companies with the gall to seek profits for their work. So of course there’s a slick, calculating, multi-billion corporation who are in trouble for selling a weed killer that sometimes takes out farmers too (you half expect the company to claim it’s just “collateral damage”).
In the end, however, nasty corporations are just a formality. This isn’t an anti-corporate movie so much as an anti-lawyer movie. All the major characters are lawyers of some sort, and in this movie, that means they’re all villains of one stripe or another, all compromised and corrupted, soulless, scheming, cell-phone wielding, jargon-spouting, pinstriped minions of evil. You get the feeling that if writer-director Tony Gilroy got pulled over for drunk driving, he’d immediately start babbling about how lawyers caused all the wars in the world.
But despise them as he may, he seems to have learned some of their art. His movie is as engrossing and captivating as the most powerful courtroom closing statement, laced with graceful twists and turns, told with a dramatic flair (and out of order, just to keep you guessing), and coated with a moody grey sheen and a throbbing electronic score to match. But like any good trial lawyer, Gilroy makes things seem more important than they are. Closer inspection reveals the film to be less than the sum of its parts, a merely adequate legal thriller that comes alive only through crafty direction and strong performances, and of course, Clooney’s movie-star mug. As in so many trials, the facts don’t matter nearly as much as the man. After all, ladies and gentleman of the audience, just look at that face. Case closed.