Sunday, February 24, 2008

Oscar Nominee Review: Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton
Directed by
Tony Gilroy
Starring: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack
Rated: R for adult language & themes

Running Time: 2 hours

Nominated for: Picture, Director, Actor,(Clooney), Supporting Actor (Wilkinson), Supporting Actress (Swinton), Original Score, Original Screenplay

George Clooney and Director Tony Gilroy shine in the feel-good "movie" of the year

First I want to preface this review by stating that I haven't had a chance to screen most of the major Oscar nominees this year. Whether it was a case of a lack of interesting contenders (Sweeney Todd, Atonement, La Vie en Rose, this means you), the late release of front runners such as There Will be Blood, or a lack of interest due to the possibility of the writer's strike cancelling the ceremony, my wife and I just weren't as into the whole process as much as in years past.

We were able to catch Viggo Mortensen's chilling portrayal of a sinister Russian killer with a conscience in Eastern Promises a few weeks ago, easily recognizing it as an Oscar-worthy performance before the nominees were announced, and we also witnessed Ruby Dee's heart wrenching turn as the mother of a corrupt American killer in American Gangster last summer, but that's about it as far as the major players go.

But thankfully we did watch 7-time nominee Michael Clayton last night, and as far as I'm concerned the quality of that film more than made up for the lack of quantity we suffered from missing most of the others.

That's because Michael Clayton is a true movie lover's movie, one devoid of shootouts, car chases, contrived plot twists and foul-mouthed dialog that's too witty for its own good.

No, Clayton is a stylish, subtle and understated legal thriller, one that doesn't spell out its agenda in the opening scenes, yet keeps the viewer engrossed enough to follow the narrative through all the way to the intense final frame. It's a thinking viewer's movie, one that relies on the powerful dramatic chops of the actors involved and the polished guidance of a first-time director to lead the viewer through a straightforward plot that manages to astound and impress without beating the audience over the head with what it's trying to accomplish.

Clooney plays the title character, a legal "fixer" at a large and prestigious law firm in New York who has suffered through numerous obstacles in his life while trying to navigate a road to riches & success, with just the right amount of gravitas and severity. He's a divorced father of a grade-school aged son with a gambling problem and an addict brother who convinced him to invest in a local restaurant that ended up going belly-up, leaving Michael with a $75,000 debt and facing the eternal question of "what am I doing with my life?"

When the chief litigator at his firm, Artur Edens (a superb Wilkinson) goes berserk at a deposition in a $3 billion dollar class action suit for agricultural giant U-North, Clayton, who has been a close friend of Edens for many years, is called in to handle the situation and bring the rogue lawyer back to reality. That's when the slow-starting film takes its turn into mesmerizing, memorable cinema.

Turns out Edens has not just suffered a relapse of his manic-depression caused by his failure to stay on his meds, but he has discovered, via a long-buried interdepartmental U-North memo, that the company knew it was pumping cancer-causing agents into the wells of unsuspecting farmers for years, choosing to bury the revelation at the risk of spending millions of dollars to rectify the problem.

At the urging of the firm's founder, Marty Bach (co-producer Pollack), Clayton is instructed to reign in the rogue partner or the company's proposed merger with a London-based firm could fall through, not to mention cost the firm millions in legal fees it is owed for the 6+ years of billable hours it has put in on behalf of U-North.

Trouble is Clayton has enough issues of his own on his plate, namely the $75k he owes for his failed business venture, which combined with his years of gambling losses has left him near penniless and on the verge of emotional collapse himself.

This conundrum faced by the lead character, who could have been portrayed as a suave, slick legal eagle with a Fortune 500 portfolio and a stable of sexy mistresses, combined with the laid-back direction of first-timer Gilroy, best known as a writer of the Bourne trilogy and producer of Proof of Life, makes for fascinating cinema, and witnessing how Clooney handles this crossroads in his character's life is what makes Clayton one of the most absorbing films to grace the screen in a long time.

There are two scenes that best exemplify the subtle yet powerful punch the actor and director provide, and although they are mere minutes in length and are not pivotal to the overall plot, they serve as crystal-clear reminders why this is one of the year's best films.

The first is a scene involving Clayton and a trio of wild horses, which we witness both in the beginning of the movie as well as later when the story comes back to where we joined it. Brilliantly shot with just the right amount of silence and background illumination, it leaves an indelible impression on the viewer's mind, and not because of the single explosive scene in the film that comes afterward.

The second is a quiet yet gut-punching monologue with Clayton and his young son in the car. After leaving a family function in which Michael's deadbeat brother shows up as they are leaving his sister's house, Michael tries to explain to his boy that not all men turn out to be drug-addled losers like his brother. Watching Clooney wrestle with emotions as his eyes well up and his brow twists in knots is by far one of the most heart-wrenching, emotional three minutes of film I've ever seen an actor produce, and I couldn't help but think as the scene ended that he could have won the Oscar based on that snippet of cinematic excellence alone, the rest of his brilliant performance aside.

Of course his is not the only great acting job turned in, as Wilkinson is at the top of his game as the hot shot lawyer who either has had a moment of epiphany after realizing that the people he has been fighting for all these years are really the true enemies in life, or he has just finally snapped following years of legal wrangling in which people's lives are destroyed, his own included.

Tilda Swinton also turns in a terrific performance as the chief litigator for U-North who has to appear calm and confident in front of the stuffed suit millionaires she represents, but underneath the facade she is merely an insecure woman on the verge of a breakdown herself. All the other roles are deftly handled as well, from Pollack as the money-grubbing chief partner, to Clayton's son Henry, played by Austin Williams with just the right mix of child-like naivete and grownup smarts.

All in all Michael Clayton is one of the most satisfying movies for fans of real movies ever made. The acting is top notch, the directing is first rate, the cinematography is attention-getting with out being over the top, and to top it all off it has an ending that will leave you with goose bumps and still smiling at the same time.

What more can you ask of a film?

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