A lot of responsibility comes with naming a movie after a fictional character: There's no instant point of contact, no subtext for movie-goers to bring with them to the theater.
And yet, the experience doesn't always begin at zero. George Clooney, perhaps the most low-keyed movie star since Henry Fonda, has two primary modus operandi -- melancholy (Syriana) and insouciance (Ocean's Eleven). His special gift is his ability to use them both at the same time. And while his performance as writer/director Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton is more than adequate for the movie that it finally is, it's somewhat too uncomplicated for the movie that it might have been.
The story, which takes place over five days, revolves around a famous Manhattan law firm that's spent six years defending a big agribusiness against a class-action lawsuit. The lead attorney (Tom Wilkinson), who's a manic-depressive, goes off his medications and wigs out at a deposition. So the firm calls in its fixer, Michael Clayton, to repair his troubled senior colleague.
This breakdown causes the skin-tight general counsel (Tilda Swinton) of the agribusiness to hire two hit men, just in case, while the head of the law firm (Sydney Pollack) puts pressure on Clayton to contain the mess. One sinister thing leads to another, and the crazy attorney turns out not to be so crazy after all: Those voices telling him that something's rotten may have been imaginary, but something really is rotten, and he has the secret memo to prove it.
So what does this all give us? A story about a corrupt corporation that knowingly poisons people with dangerous chemicals: That's yesterday's news and yesterday's plot. A story about a corporate snake who sheds his evil skin: That's just yesterday's plot. Clayton doesn't change because of some profound crisis of conscience. He does it after they murder a friend. This is either American individualism or American selfishness, depending upon how well the filmmakers have persuaded us to embrace their anti-heroic cipher.
To the degree that Hitchcock was right -- suspense is the anticipation, not the outcome -- then Michael Clayton is a suspenseful entertainment. But you'll never believe Clayton was his firm's do-anything guy because we never see him do "anything." He has a complex relationship with his bright son, a strained relationship with his family, nothing to show for his invaluable contributions to the firm, and only a résumé of a past. These are helpful touches in fleshing out the character, but they aren't nearly enough, and neither is Clooney, despite his absorbing charm.
Still, Michael Clayton holds your interest. Wilkinson is a tempestuous presence, and Swinton, severe and mannered, plays a woman who rehearses her lies awkwardly to a mirror before getting them pitch-perfect in front of people. Even the usually too-blustery Pollack tones down nicely, and Gilroy's script is impressively crisp. Just don't leave Michael Clayton expecting to have met anyone worth remembering.