Last night, we went to see Michael Clayton. I’d read fabulous reviews of No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, but I find it harder and harder to see downbeat films full of violence. There’s just too much violence in the real world for me to be able to enjoy it represented on screen. I know it means I’m missing some amazing films and acting.
Michael Clayton is a terrific film. A dramatic thriller involving corporate and legal skulduggery, it features a wonderful cast involving some of the finest actors working today including George Clooney in the lead, Tom Wilkinson in an astonishing performance (not rewarded with an Oscar unfortunately) as a former hotshot corporate lawyer turned raving mystical lunatic, Tilda Swinton (who did win the Oscar in her category), and Sydney Pollack (who also was one of the film’s producers).
To tell the truth, the plot was a little thin. It involves a sleazy multinational agritech corporation a la Monsanto selling a cancer-causing weed killer, which leads to a $3-billion class action suit. My wife (an attorney) and I also laughed at Clooney’s role as his law firm’s “fixer.” The guy (every law firm has one, don’t they?) who makes knotty problems go away with the wave of his hand. Rain-maker partner has a nervous breakdown? No problem. Get him into Betty Ford and clean up the mess after him. Big client involved in hit and run accident? We can make it go away.
But what is marvelous about this film is the character portrayals. Clooney is at his most compelling in the role of a troubled man seeking desperately to find some greater meaning to his life than fixing the worst problems of a group of lawyers who see him as little better than a “human janitor.” He is the good man confronting evil with just his bare wits.
Though Wilkinson’s role and portrayal of a top-flight corporate litigator unraveling in the midst of a professional and spiritual crisis are a bit showy and mannered, it’s still a tour de force. The only reason he didn’t win is the incredibly strong competition he faced in his category.
Tilda Swinton’s performance as general counsel of the sleazy multinational corporation is also a bit showy for my taste. But I’ve liked her in everything she’s been in and she’s a class act. She was especially fine in The Deep End, which I highly recommend. Her Oscar couldn’t have happened to a more deserving actor.
One of the great highlights of the film is the last scene in which Clooney, who is supposed to be dead, confronts Swinton with the unmasking of her evil machinations. The former’s line: “I’m the guy you want to buy, not the one you want to kill” is as dramatically powerful as any of the best lines delivered by Marlon Brando, Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper or Humphrey Bogart. And of course, Clooney’s selling of this deception to Swinton is her undoing. What is especially great about the scene is that in the midst of it and until the very last second you don’t know whether Clooney is going to allow himself to be bought or stand for something better. I don’t want to explain this for fear of spoiling it for anyone who might see the film.
Watching Clooney in this film brought me so much satisfaction contemplating an actor who got his break on a superior TV show; but who has gone on, unlike most other actors in his position, and created a superb career. He’s picked fine film vehicles for his talent, plus films that have a social conscience. The man has a mind in addition to whatever gifts God gave him. If you compare him to other male stars like Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, or Nicholas Cage, the difference is that Clooney is less about the celebrity than about what he can do with the celebrity to advance projects and ideas in which he believes. How many are there like him in Hollywood? A few perhaps. But not many.
On a different note, for any Seattlites reading this we had dinner afterward at Porcella, a very nice Bellevue restaurant which I recommend. I had butternut squash soup with balsamic vinegar, lamb osso buco with lentils and chocolate pot au crème. What was especially lovely was our waiter bringing to our table a 7 year old “assistant” who helped take our order. She also served our food and cleaned away our dishes. Since we have a son about to turn 7 next month, I was intrigued by our eager and precocious young waiter in training. I thought she might be the waiter’s or owner’s daughter. Turns out she was the daughter of customers who were also eating there that night. Natalie, the girl’s name, was so into the idea of waiting tables that the actual waiter took her under his wing and let her join him. I thought it was splendid of him. She had a good time and her parents got to have a nice dinner to themselves. I wanted to leave her a tip in addition to his but she’d already left the restaurant by the time we paid our bill.
Porcella Urban Market
10245 Main Street
Bellevue, WA 98004
I just saw this myself yesterday on video and thoroughly enjoyed it. I did find myself asking my husband: do people really *do* this stuff? I must live in a moral bubble.
Clooney is truly the Cary Grant of our generation!
Thanks for the review, Richard. I too cannot see violent films (or even TV shows – I wanted to see the Sopranos when it first started running but the reports of violence turned me off). I will be sure to rent Michael Clayton soon.
And thank you for the restaurant review. I’ve been blogging frugal food and then had a blow-out weekend in which we ate at not one but TWO trendy, fabulous, not-cheap restaurants. Everybody needs a little indulgence sometimes, and thank G*d we are blessed with the opportunity and the means.
Have we seen the same movie?
I like Clooney, but his movies are another matter.
He is Cary Grant like, but his movies do not have the content and the touch of the Cary Grant ones.
This convoluted Michael Clayton plot was boring from the beginning.
So much for believing to film critiques.
His Syriana was also highly recommended, and has disappointed me.
Even the Good Night, And Good Luck was less than a masterpiece, but at least a good fight for decency.
Richard Silverstein says
Judy: All I can tell you is that no law firm my wife has ever worked at works like the one in this film. But it sure made for dramatic viewing. I also believe that while there is lots of skullduggery at U.S. corporations, the actions of the corporate general counsel in this case were a bit over the top. Though again, it made for great drama.
Leila: There is one violent scene in this movie that might disturb you. But in the context of the entire movie it’s much more focussed on character development and building natural tension, rather than exploitative violence for the sake of violence.
Cole Krawitz says
Really? I saw this movie in the theatre with folks, and honestly I thought it was terrible. Weak plot, bad writing, half the time they didn’t fill in the story lines, and it draggggeeeedddddd. And I LOVE George Clooney. ER was a wrap once he was out…but this was not one of his finer moments.
Richard Silverstein says
Can’t agree with you there, Cole. If you read my post I noted that the plot was thin. Bad writing? I didn’t find it so. I do agree that the middle part of the film did drag. Some plot lines like the relationship with his ne’er do well brother were left hanging. The part of the plot about the failure of his bar seemed a drag on the pacing of the film.
I never said this was the greatest movie ever made. But I still think it was terrific and the writing & acting equally so. The fact that Steven Soderburgh and Sydney Pollack were among the film’s producers says a lot to me about the quality they saw in it. The NY Times review, which helped convince me to see it, was superb.