michael clayton (2007)

Ouch. Y'know, usually, when I'm picking out which movies I'll throw down my hard earned cash on it's going to be a director I trust who becomes the deciding factor. It's been easy this year as many of my favorites have films coming out, so I've been able to stick to that with some pretty enjoyable results. Every now and then though, when awards season heats up, I'll see what films are getting loaded with critical praise and go out on a limb to see what they're all about. The first time I did that this year was Gone Baby Gone, a film I had a pretty mixed reaction to. It did what it had to, but overall I wasn't too impressed. And now, I decided to give it one more go and see what all the praise was about for another big critical hit, Michael Clayton . Again, I'm feeling pretty damn mixed. Yes, the flick was interesting, yes, it held my attention the entire time. However, it started off strong and lost steam rapidly throughout its run-time. In the end, I had very much adopted a "who cares" attitude toward the entire thing. Now, mere hours removed from seeing it, I sit here totally unaffected and apathetic toward a film that was championed as being so "intelligent" and "involving". Sorry, but no. It's especially noticeable now, after The Darjeeling Limited reached out and involved me so much just last night, just how lacking this film really was.

Apathy is the name of the game right now, I just couldn't be moved to care about much that was going on with this film. And it got progressively worse as the film moved along. Other than that the only thing that stuck out to me about the film was George Clooney's performance, which was great. Clooney provides more or less the interest for the entire film. We're at once aware of the gloss and polish that has gone into the look of the film. I found myself caught up in admiring the tailoring on Clooney's designer suits, the shine of his Mercedes-Benz and the sleek design of his cell phone instead of actually being riveted with the story, atmosphere or theme. Roger Ebert said the film resembled the cover of GQ and he hit the nail on the head. As you know about me by now, great performances just don't do it for me, it's direction that really garners my praise, so already I'm not in my element with this film. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate what good acting and appealing stars does for a picture, it adds that certain bit of spice and presence to the screen that accent the film with the right or wrong kinds of flavors. Clooney takes this thing away, he's the reason we keep watching. Other than that, I can't think of any reason to care. Which is nuts because I can recall many instances in the film where I was very involved in what was going on. But now, in the aftermath, the film has evaporated from memory and I'm left wondering what the big deal all was, especially with the lackluster conclusion this thing delivers. No statement, no expansion of theme, just a simple wrap-up to a somewhat provocative story. Oh great. This thing doesn't accomplish much, to be honest, that The Constant Gardener didn't over 2 years ago. That film was much more focused, although I appreciate Clayton less spy/hero approach. Michael Clayton is about real, down-to-earth people, and it helps immensely. This flick was written and directed by Tony Gilroy, the guy who wrote all of the films in the Bourne series. The similarities are almost too great. The film gives us the run-around for much of the run-time with plot details and contrivances and ends with a payoff that is, sorry, pretty predictable and not very complex at all. That works beautifully for some fun, goofy spy adventure films, especially when you've got Greengrass behind the wheel to ratchet up the tension and suspense. Let's not pretend that the same formula works this time around. Part of me wonders if people are just so thankful when they see a picture that doesn't outright insult their intelligence that they fall all over it with praise without wondering if their intelligence was being put to good use. A full two hours of keeping up with the plot and I walk out of the theater with nothing to show for it. At least Gone Baby Gone hit at some weighty moral conundrums and gave me something to think about after it ended, Michael Clayton gives me, more or less, a Bourne film without the action (although Gilroy can't resist tossing in an explosion).

If you're going to hand me a character-driven drama with nothing at the thematic core, they had better be some damn compelling characters. Not one of them is in this film, we don't get even the slightest hint of a motivation for anyone. Yes, Clayton himself is a very suave, but very flawed, hero, we find out all sorts of details about his personal life, his family, his brothers, his work relationships, etc. But it ends there, with details, nothing shows me what drives the man, we never get a quiet moment with him except early on when he stops along the road to look at some horses. Why? He's never presented as an impulsive man prior to this, never presented as someone who like to pause and soak in nature, we have no idea who this man is. Also, we have no idea who our director is as he is easily one of the most invisible of the year. Gilroy lets his camera blend in with the rest of the visuals, never really giving us anything but what we absolutely need to see. He does a great job, again, emphasizing the designer suits if that was his intention, but I never feel any sort of stand-out directorial moment. What he does have an excellent grasp on, especially for his first time helming, is pacing, this film moves extremely smoothly, even if it does lose steam. It's one of the hazards of too much trust in the script, no matter how well-written it is, it just can't carry a film like this through without someone visionary behind the camera. A nice decision, however, and I don't know if Gilroy or the film's Director of Photography Robert Elswit (I'm assuming the latter) came up with the idea of shooting in shallow depth of field for most of the film, but it was a great choice. The background is constantly blurred as our actors take the stage in front of the glow of various out-of-focus lights. Good stuff. Elswit does a very nice job with the look of the rest of the film too, I have to hand it to him. I have to hand it to the cast who do a great job as well, especially Sydney Pollack, who I was not aware was such a good actor. He really does unexpectedly great work. Tom Wilkinson is also great as the crazed lawyer. He seems to be trying to turn his performance into the Howard Beale of the courtroom (which is probably what's leading to all of the comparisons this is getting with 70's dramas) and does pretty well with it. And, of course, a few more props need to be thrown Clooney's way, he keeps this thing afloat. There's not much else to say, the picture underwhelms even with all of these good ingredients behind it, oh well, nothing much to say except you can't win 'em all.

4