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Watching Michael Clayton, it?s hard to shake the fact that one might have seen it before. It is a most familiar feeling film, from the plot, a crisis of conscience by a lawyer, to the case handled, intentional pollution by a huge corporation, to all of the stereotypical characters featured within. While this is not necessarily a damning thing, the movie also plays out very generically. It lacks a unique feel, or hook or anything to separate it besides the intensity of the performances in a few scenes. In fact, it?s most distinctive because it seems intent on babying its audience with a combination of repetition and predictability.
The first sign that Michael Clayton is a film in which everything is telegraphed to the audience, is that it starts, runs for about fifteen minutes and then jumps backwards in time a few days. This makes it so that the beginning of the film is actually the end of the story, but it?s never really clear why. When the scene is played back later, there is no change in perspective, in how the events are viewed. It does not add development to any of the characters, who are introduced much better in the first few scenes in the timeline. All it does is give away several important plot developments and show us who is alive by the time that scene will roll around. This is just the beginning, though, the whole movie plays out so that it?s easy to see what will come next. Thirty minutes in, it?s easy to predict where each player?s character arc will end. An hour in, a reasonable guess at what the last scene will be could be made.
The film holds the audience?s hand in other ways than offering plot predictability too. Several points are driven home multiple times, from the drug habits of Clayton?s brother which are brought up, discussed, mentioned, discussed, shown, and then discussed again, to the contents of a memo, which is first shown on screen, then discussed, then read in its entirety and explained in case anyone doesn?t get it from the text. There?s also an attempt to develop the antagonist, played by Tilda Swinton, into a character of her own, but all this does is shows the audience both sides of everything. We are always ahead of every character, so that when they find out things, it again feels predictable. And the last half of the film consists of a lot of revelations.
Of course the movie isn?t really made for the plot or weird directorial choices. It?s supposed to be character study and acting showcase. At least it?s half of that, sometimes. There are only three characters in the film worth discussing. Wilkinson?s lawyer is interesting. He?s outwardly crazy, and mostly crazy inside too, but with a lot of his competence still there. He?s established in a well uttered opening monologue, that works even though the contents are mundane. From there his performance is note-perfect throughout, even when he is forced by the script to do stupid things such as the aforementioned memo reading.
Tilda Swinton is also good throughout, and one of the best scenes in the film is her introduction where she prepares for an interview. While it?s an obvious idea, she mixes the cool outward professionalism with an internal meltdown quite well, and she looks great while doing it. Unfortunately, her character quickly devolves into a one note villain, over-the-top in her evil, who is only redeemed by the strong performance.
George Clooney, as the titular character, does not fare as well as the other two stars. His character never really exists on his own; he?s entirely defined by his situation. Mention is made to his divorce, neglectful parenting and his gambling problem, but they?re never a part of him. More mention is made about the fact that he is really good at what he does, but that?s also not shown. In fact, he feels more like an amateur, not only because he?s barely competent, but because he appears to be a morally decent man who has a problem with the work that he?s doing, after fifteen years. Clooney isn?t the greatest actor at portraying this kind of thing. He?s always been one who shines in the bigger moments, and he does that here in the few scenes he gets, but as a man losing himself, he is only adequate. His character is defined by the problems that begin to overwhelm him. He misses sleep, he becomes a target and his friend loses his sanity, but George only skips shaving for two days and stares vacantly at nothing. Nuanced, his performance isn?t.
In the end, there?s not much here, and certainly nothing that hasn?t been seen before, aside from Tom Wilkinson stripping. There?s one great scene in the middle, where Clooney and Wilkinson face off and they finally get to let go, but it?s buried amidst all of the meandering. The movie?s never bad, so it?s a decent way to kill 2 hours and not get angry about what you?re seeing, but it?s nothing to write home about at all.
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