In an early scene from Michael Clayton, the titular legal fixer (George Clooney) heads out on yet another sleazy mission to make a problem go away for one of his New York firm’s high-paying clients. But his Mercedes’ onboard navigation system that will lead him to the client’s home seems to be on the fritz. Metaphorical significance alert: Michael is beginning to realize that his compass—directional or moral—isn’t functioning properly.
Veteran screenwriter Tony Gilroy—making his feature directing debut—has spent a lot of time over the past several years adapting the stripped-down Bourne series, so you can understand his urge to indulge in some writerly symbolic flourishes. And, in spite of examples like the aforementioned, for much of Michael Clayton, he seems to have internalized the low-key intensity of the Bourne films. But, as effective as this moral drama is for much of its running time, Gilroy seems to be having the same problem as Michael figuring out which direction he wants to go.
It all begins with Michael himself, whose complexity isn’t typical of a cinematic creation. A divorced, recovering gambling addict with a young son (Austin Williams), Michael is growing ever more disgusted with his professional life as little more than “a janitor.” But his attempt at creating an escape route for himself—a restaurant built in partnership with his alcoholic brother Timmy (David Lansbury)—has gone belly-up, leaving Michael $75,000 in debt and completely at the mercy of his masters at Kenner Bach & Ledeen. Clooney doesn’t often get credit for his acting chops—his easygoing charisma in the Ocean’s films seems too, well, easy—but here he nails Michael’s casual self-loathing with simple shifts of the eye and defeated body language.
The real complications begin when Michael is assigned the task of reining in his firm’s top litigator, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson). A manic-depressive leading the firm’s representation of agribusiness company UNorth against a class-action suit, Arthur has gone off his meds and, apparently, out of his mind, gripped by an epiphany that he must no longer defend the guilty corporate behemoth. Wilkinson walks a tricky line between “I’m crazy as hell, and I’m not gonna take it any more” ravings and newfound moral clarity, but his character seems to represent a problem facing Gilroy himself: having so much he wants to say that he isn’t sure whether to whisper or scream.
He runs into the same difficulty dealing with the character of Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), UNorth’s new lead in-house counsel. In a terrific sequence, Gilroy cuts back and forth between Karen’s anxious, find-the-perfect-word preparations for a canned corporate interview and her smooth delivery in front of the camera. She’s a professional with a flop-sweaty desperation to convince everyone she knows what she’s doing, yet the steps she takes to prove that she’s in command of the “situation” with Arthur feel strangely over-the-top. When a story of the drop-by-drop disintegration of conscience turns homicidal, it feels as though Gilroy has surrendered to his inner John Grisham.
It’s yet another example of how much Gilroy is trying to pack into Michael Clayton, at the expense of its most promising central narrative. He finds a potentially compelling focus in Michael’s relationship with his son and the uncomfortable parallels he recognizes between his own life and that of the lonely, workaholic Arthur. But there’s so much drama in Michael’s life—we see snippets of his interactions, not just with Timmy, but with his cop brother Gene (Sean Cullen), as well as his slip back into poker-rooms—that it’s never possible to latch on to Michael’s awkward connection to his child. It’s a movie from a guy who acts as though he might never get another chance to make one, so he better include everything this time around.
The surprising thing is that how much of it works despite this density of content. Gilroy works terrifically with all his actors, making the everyday avarice of Michael’s boss (Sydney Pollack) so natural as to contain no hint of self-aware villainy. And he nails details that exist only in the margins, like the stuffed-animal security blanket in the suitcase of a farm girl making her first trip to the big city. As satisfying as Michael Clayton is in bits and pieces, it misses the chance to be something more. When you know where you want to go, you need something to tell you that the best way to get there is often a straight line.