For all the ominus buildup in the trailer, what we have here in "Michael Clayton" is basically a mas-macho/midlife-crisis gloss on the ever-classy old saw of corporate-crony scumbags clawing their way back to humanity. From the premise on down, it hopes (hell, it DEMANDS) comparison to the mythic (cue Peter Biskind's raging hard-on) Great Films Of The 70s, and it's graciously upfront about this by building much of it's story-momentum around a character who may as well simply be named Howard Beale Mark II. That'd be Arthur Edens, (Tom Wilkinson,) a legendary corporate lawyer who's longtime defense of a loathsome chemical conglomerate may-or-may-not have led him to snap, go off his meds and - now "seeing the world clearly" - turn on his masters. The titular Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is the firm's dirty-job "fixer" called in on damage-control duty.
So, then, the not-great news is that "Clayton" is, at least in part, yet another corporate-culture indictment that desperately, desperately wants to be "Network." The really-great news is that it doesn't really matter. Have we, ultimately, been down these roads a few dozen times before? Yup, doesn't matter. They're good roads, they go good places. Is Wilkinson's Arthur another Howard Beale? Yes, he is. Doesn't matter. Wilkinson is a great actor, and it's a great spin on the well-worn "madness equals clarity" concept. Tilda Swinton's bitch-on-wheels company rep bad guy? Yeah, it's been done, but never quite this way and not lately quite so well.
What sets this apart from it's predecessors, aside from the actors and the fresh takes they bring to characters just this side of archetypal is the structure; which suggests that the movie is as aware as we are of how much familiar ground it's covering. The chemical company covering up pollution bit, it seems to know, we're all familiar with after "Civil Action" and "Erin Brokovich," and so it drops the intrigue and conspiracy story mostly into the background and zeroes in on the semi-tangential outer lives of the character's occupying it; taking us through the harried paces of Clayton's gambling woes and family/financial wreckage and the twitchy, obsessive and profoundly sad-looking preparation rituals of Swinton's company hitwoman. And, again, while the whole "insane man who's actually never been saner" thing has been done to DEATH Wilkinson makes it feel entirely fresh - it's the first time I've bought this kind of character in a long time.
Since it's using genre-familiarity as a shortcut past exposition and into character-study, it's largely forgivable that most of Clayton's "heroic-journey" you're likely to see coming. Yes, the sinister corporate types are probably hiding something really sinister to drive Arthur over the edge, he's probably got the goods on them, Swinton's character is probably going to go all-the-way-bad to protect her masters and Michael Clayton is almost certainly going to be tempted remain safely in moral limbo rather than risk finally fighting on the side of good. Not everything has to re-invent the wheel, so long as it still rolls.
Great characters, good movie, go see it.
FINAL RATING: 8/10