Review: “Michael Clayton”

I don’t like films about corporate intrigue, generally speaking. Most of them are either so slow that I don’t bother to follow the plot, or have been so artificially inflated with action sequences that I can’t tolerate what plot there is. This was the same sort of problem that I had with Syriana (and yes, I know that’s not really a corporate espionage film, but I’m making a point here!): the plot was too fast, too disjointed, and too confusing.

Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton is one of the few exceptions I’ve seen. Starring George Clooney, Michael Clayton is a story of the life of…well…Michael Clayton, a professional sweeper of corporate problems under the corporate rug (or “fixer”, as they call them). After being sent to control the ravings of another mentally-unstable fixer who decides to go on a personal crusade against the company he’s currently “fixing” for, Clayton comes to some realizations about his job and just what he’s gotten himself involved in.

The film is executed incredibly. At times, it’s so well-written and well-acted that even the incredibly boring office scenes become exciting. Director Gilroy certainly has a gift for pacing as well, ensuring that no scene is uninteresting. Even if it would be under normal circumstances, Gilroy somehow manages to add a detail, or a character, or a voice-over, or sometimes just the right piece of music to prevent the action from stalling.

This may be because Michael Clayton is a character-driven film, a precious rarity in modern cinema. The characters are all fairly well-defined, even those that make only a single brief appearance. None of them feel like cardboard cutouts. One gets the impression that they all have problems of their own, even if those problems aren’t explicitly handled in the actual movie.

The plot, too, is masterfully composed. Most movies of Michael Clayton‘s sort — and here again I refer to Syriana as a reference point — have a tendency towards plots with incredible complexity. It’s hard to squeeze a broad-ranging, international, lifelike series of events into a few-hour movie, and the result is often that the scene transitions are so choppy and hard-to-follow that the plot baby is thrown out with the runtime-reduction bathwater (and yes, I know that’s not exactly an intuitive analogy, but give me a break, I’m tired). Michael Clayton, however, manages to make the plot make sense. Being a child of crappy action movies, I’ve always had a bit of difficulty following complex plots, but Michael Clayton conveys plot with enough clarity and simplicity that it made sense on the first viewing.

Regular readers of my movie reviews know what comes next: the complaints. That’s one thing I’m good at: finding fault with movies.

First of all, as tight and well-constructed as the plot is, it still manages to meander at times. There are some scenes which don’t make sense, or seem utterly random. It’s almost as though there was a bit of backstory written into the original script that ended up on a cutting-room floor somewhere. This lends parts of the movie an uncomfortable senselessness, which may actually have been intentional, considering the kind of senseless malevolence many corporate entities engage in, but when it comes to films, I give nobody the benefit of the doubt.

Also, the film is depressing. Of course, this kind of film is bound to be, but there’s just a certain darkness to it so that even in its brighter moments, it only ever manages to break even, emotionally. This is good, of course. This is what a good film is supposed to do, create an emotional atmosphere, but it means that Michael Clayton can be hard to watch if you’re in a bad mood. Then again, the air of doom that the film constructs fits so well with the overall storyline that I think I can forgive it for being depressing.

All in all, an excellent film. Probably one of the best of 2007. I’d say the best of 2007, but it has to compete with films like Sunshine, and I’m a huge science fiction nerd.

Final Judgment:

* * * * * * * * ~ ~ (8/10 asterisks)

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