Late to the Party: Michael Clayton (2007)

Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. This week: George Clooney starring in Tony Gilroy’s legal thriller, Michael Clayton. I chose this movie primarily because President Hound said someone should, and I literally couldn’t remember a thing about this movie, other than that it starred George Clooney. Which makes for a perfect entry of this series.

The film opens with the voice of Tom Wilkinson, giving a somewhat unhinged speech that sounds conspiratorial over several shots of a law firm closing for the night. This is essentially the movie in a nutshell. It goes out of its way to present the familiar tropes of the legal thriller in as mundane a manner as possible, which I think is its strongest suit.

The movie details Michael Clayton’s (George Clooney in fine form) role as a fixer for a large New York law firm, whose client is a giant multi-billion dollar corporation getting sued in a class-action lawsuit. The multi-billion dollar company is shady as hell, leading attorney Arthur Edens, played by Tom Wilkinson, has a manic episode where he wants to go public with said company’s shady history, he has to face those consequences, the main character ultimately has to do what’s right, so far it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before. If you’ve seen at least one legal drama, that is.

What I appreciated most about this movie is how mundane and even cynical it portrays the case and the characters involved. The details surrounding the lawsuit are revealed in a haphazard way because they hardly matter. It gets revealed that they’re up to no good and that people died, but other than that the specifics are hardly relevant. It’s just another multi-billion dollar conglomerate that does what companies like those often tend to do.

Same with Michael and the law firm he works for. The only one giving a speech about truth and justice is Arthur, Tom Wilkinson’s character, who’s bipolar and off his meds, which makes him realize how backwards this all is. George Clooney’s character is constantly reminded he’s “a janitor” who just cleans up the shit, because someone has to. The firm’s owner, played by Sydney Pollack, is neither the mustache-twirling villain or some sad sack brought down by the system, he’s just another cog in the machine.

This focus on the mundanity of it all is, I think, best illustrated in the scene with Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) and one of the hitmen she contacts to take out Arthur. It’s played awkwardly, as Swinton’s character is unsure she wants this to happen and is uncomfortable even asking for it (which is why she never does explicitly).

The scene after that, where Arthur gets taken out, has a similar effect on the viewer. Shots last longer than they normally would, and it’s shot as two men just doing a job, rather than the dramatic assassination it could’ve been in different filmmakers’ hands.

Scenes like these really made me wish that the movie could’ve been more of that. For the large part, the movie does little new or different with the tropes, and the times it does are too brief to make the movie more than just adequate. The writing especially is too often too much on the nose for the more realistic tone it wants to strike. It occasionally feels overwritten, with scenes that have characters explicitly say the themes of the movie out loud.

That’s not to say the movie is all bad. When the script works, it really does. And the actors and the cinematography are fine as well. George Clooney doesn’t always impress me as an actor (unless he can be a doofus in a Coen Brothers movie) but his acting is very effective here. He’s excellent as an over-the-hill lawyer who could’ve been something better. Tilda Swinton is always great, though I was surprised to learn she received an Academy Award for this as it’s not a very beefy role. She makes the character work though, not turnijng it into a stereotypical “evil career woman” but grounding her by making her awkward and kind of inexperienced. Robert Elswit’s cinematography is also a standout, making the corporate buildings of New York and the other locations look simultaneously stylized and grounded.

Ultimately, the things I say don’t work for me do not make the movie bad. It just keeps it from becoming excellent. Nevertheless I’d still recommend it. At worst, you’ll be entertained for two hours on a Sunday afternoon.