Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Oscar Preview: Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton’s titular character is introduced as one of those slick, loquaciously efficient, tell-it-like-it-is types who only exist in films. They have an encyclopedic knowledge of everything that happens to be relevant to a particular conundrum, and they are always on hand to deal with YOUR particular conundrum. Films generally exploit such characters for witty one-liners and best supporting actor nominations. Michael Clayton puts him center stage.

The film plays like a more meditative Grisham novelpic. In real life, a character with Clayton’s gifts would be burdened to exhaustion, torn between the temporal demands of his “job” and his own moral ambivalence. And indeed, George Clooney’s character is seen growing distant from his family, working through the night, and bouncing from city to city. The life of the snarky, oddly comforting, know-it-all is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Many have interpreted Michael Clayton as a moral fable, a commentary on corporate greed and (yes) a commentary on the Bush administration. Really, it’s just a legal thriller with interesting characters and solid direction, but I suppose the presence of the ClooneyChrist as the dynamic anti-hero who eventually uses his powers for good makes such comparisons unavoidable.

As a social commentary it fails for the reason that (spoiler alert) the movies villains not only skirt laws, but flaunt them in a manner that anyone can agree is immoral. They steal, murder, and hide bodies… All onscreen. A more ambitious film might have tucked such nefarious activities under the guise of standard business practice, but this doesn’t really seem to be that kind of movie.

Perhaps it is a function of these paranoid times that viewers foist such high minded moralism upon what amounts to simply a taut legal thriller. In this paradigm, we must either love or hate corporations, understand Tilda Swinton’s every twitch and twitter as a robotic machination, and even appreciate Tom Wilkinson’s abject madness in the film. Everyone is selfish who needs to be selfish, and everyone is likewise magnanimous (especially Clooney) as the plot demands.

But, really, this isn’t that sort of film. Michael Clayton is sympathetic with not only its conflicted protagonist, but also with Swinton’s corporate villainess. Her vanity is a product of her compulsion to please, and we sense she was promoted beyond her ability for the express purpose of taking a fall for her biochemical company. The film fills the fringes of Wilkinson’s madness with self-infatuation and debauchery (he offhandedly confesses to exploiting sex slaves at the service of what he perceives to be a more compelling story). He may have seen the light, but he produces only darkness.

But such grandiosity speaks to Academy voters, and Clayton’s producers (Clooney included) clearly had Oscar ambitions, (anchored no doubt, by Swinton and Wilkinson’s phenomenal work) so modern morality play it is.

But I prefer the film as a character driven thriller. In Clooney’s short intervals with his son, he offers soliloquies on what he believes his son will become. His on-the-fly-parenting provides the film’s most authentic moments. Clooney has limited time with his son, and intends to use it by making sure his son does not follow his footsteps. Swinton is the type of corporate entity who needs to be precise in her language. When she goes off the cuff, she gets in trouble, hence the robotics. The film sees her not as cruel, but as incapable of choosing the less efficient solution. Perhaps, then, she is the worst kind of cruel.

Michael Clayton is a good film, and not a great one, and certainly not one of the best films of the year. My one hope for the end of the Bush administration is that activists will cease to ascribe altruistic virtue to their character for the simple fact that they are not murderers and thieves. Such thinking is hubris. That Michael Clayton is entertaining is irrefutable. To suggest that it stands athwart some commonly held morality (or lack thereof) is absurd.

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