Sunday, March 2, 2008
I had mixed feelings about Michael Clayton long before I finally saw it last week, which possibly made the let-down less of a plummet. I'm a sucker for paranoid conspiracy thrillers, the likes of which haven't really been seen since the 70s. Enemy of the State is the only recent movie I can think of that has successfully capitalized on the anxieties brought on by the merging of the Information Age with the meddlesome tendencies of human beings. Played by George Clooney -- in a solid performance though not an especially memorable one -- the title character of Michael Clayton, a "fixer" of dicey legal cases, watches his own smug circle of existence collapse over the span of a few days. Whatever tension there is in the movie evolves out of whether Clayton's own shaky ethics will also fall into the abyss.
But the air is let out of the premise by Tony Gilroy's screenwriting implausibilities -- namely that the plot hinges on a mentally unstable attorney having the kind of courtroom breakdown (screaming epithets, running around naked) that exists only in movies. What made me dread Michael Clayton was the casting of Tom Wilkinson as the loony lawyer. One of my least favorite actors, Wilkinson tears into the role with predictable grandstanding. Some scenery chewers are creative (Daniel Day-Lewis) or so naturally charismatic (Jack Nicholson) that I'm willing to give them a lot of line, but Wilkinson's choices are always thuddingly, grindingly obvious. Gilroy (who also directed) has given him some long-winded Peter Finch-style monologues, but there's no context for them other than the blatant attempt to earn an Oscar nomination. (Mission accomplished.) The surprisingly underpopulated cast, namely the always-game Tilda Swinton, does what it can; but in this dramatically inert film, it's a ridiculously oversized bag of baguettes -- upstaging even Wilkinson -- that makes the most lasting impression.