In 'Michael Clayton,' a whistle-blower runs for ethical cover

George Clooney sells the role of a corporate 'fixer' who develops a conscience.

"Michael Clayton" is styled as a throwback to such socially conscious 1970s morality plays as "The China Syndrome" and "The Parallax View." Typically set in the high-end netherworld of corporate politics, these movies center on people whose conscience ultimately short-circuits their drive for power.

That's certainly the case in "Michael Clayton," where the eponymous protagonist, played by George Clooney, is a "fixer" for a big-money New York law firm, Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen. If there is a wealthy client with a scandal that needs to disappear, Michael is summoned. But by the time we are introduced to him, he is worn down from years of being a glorified bag man. A disastrous investment has left him $80,000 in the hole, with a week to pay up before bad things happen.

When the firm's chief defense attorney, the cutthroat Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), suffers a nervous breakdown while taking a deposition in a multibillion-dollar class-action suit brought against their client, the agrochemical giant U/North, Michael is brought in to play janitor. Kenner, Bach and Ledeen is about to merge with a London conglomerate and the bad publicity would torpedo the deal, not to mention the defense.

Screenwriter Tony Gilroy, making his directorial debut, isn't content to tell a simple story simply. (He wrote or co-wrote all of the "Bourne" movies, which were not so much plotted as prodded.) Told mostly in flashback over a period of four frenetic days, "Michael Clayton" has an unnecessarily complicated structure and a surfeit of back stories. It's not enough that Michael once had ambitions to be a crusading trial lawyer. He must also be an up-from-the-working-class, divorced, single dad with a alcoholic brother whose other brother, like his father, is a cop. He must have a gambling habit and be in hock to the bad guys.

Michael's relationship with Arthur is the emotional core of the movie, but here again Gilroy goes into overdrive. Eight years ago, Michael rescued Arthur, who is severely manic-depressive when he goes off medication, from a similar situation. Would a major New York law firm entrust its biggest case to such a man? Maybe so, but Gilroy isn't very convincing on that score. He's more interested in convincing us that Arthur's madness is really a form of righteous sanity. Arthur, you see, has rooted out a smoking-gun memo that implicates U/North, and now he's out to torpedo his own case.

As Arthur's machinations become clear to both his own firm and to U/North's newly appointed chief counsel (a hammy Tilda Swinton) we are subjected to a predictable pileup of melodramatic paraphernalia. Hooded assassins, midnight stakeouts, bomb-rigged cars – it's all here. Meanwhile Arthur is carrying on like Peter Finch's Howard Beale in "Network," and Michael is sinking inexorably into the sloughs of despondency.

It's in the nature of these self-conscious, high-minded morality plays that ultimately morality will win out. The trick is to make us feel that, right up until the end, it could go either way – even though we know it won't.

Without the steadfast intelligence of Clooney's performance, "Michael Clayton" wouldn't work half as well as it does. Michael's grace under pressure seems genuine, and so does his bone-deep world-weariness. He no longer values his expertise as miracle worker, and it's to Clooney's credit that this comes through even without all that apparatus about the gambling and the debts and brothers. Clooney at times overplays the impassiveness – he has a tendency to turn his famous mug into a blank slate. But without him, and without some fine playing from Wilkinson and from Sydney Pollack as the firm's lead partner, "Michael Clayton" would be glossy claptrap. Grade: B–

Rated R for language, including some sexual dialogue.

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