In an early scene from Michael Clayton, the titular legal fixer (George Clooney) heads out on yet another sleazy mission to make a problem go away for one of his New York firm’s high-paying clients. But his Mercedes’ on-board navigation system that will lead him to the client’s home seems to be on the fritz. Metaphorical significance alert: Michael is beginning to realize that his compass—directional or moral—isn’t functioning properly.
Veteran screenwriter Tony Gilroy—making his feature directorial debut—has spent a lot of time over the past several years adapting the stripped-down Bourne series, so you can understand his urge to indulge in some writerly symbolic flourishes. And in spite of examples like the aforementioned, for much of Michael Clayton he seems to have internalized the low-key intensity of the Bourne films. But as effective as Gilroy’s moral drama is for much of its running time, he seems to be having the same problem as Michael figuring out which direction he wants to go.
It all begins with Michael himself, whose complexity isn’t typical of a cinematic creation. A divorced, recovering gambling addict with a young son (Austin Williams), Michael is growing ever more disgusted with his professional life as little more than “a janitor.” But his attempt at creating an escape route for himself has gone belly-up, leaving Michael $75,000 in debt and completely at the mercy of his masters at Kenner Bach & Ledeen. Clooney doesn’t often get credit for his acting chops, but here he nails Michael’s casual self-loathing with simple shifts of the eye and defeated body language.
The real complications begin when Michael is assigned the task of reigning in his firm’s top litigator, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson). A manic-depressive leading the firm’s representation of agri-business company UNorth against a class-action suit, Edens has gone off his meds and apparently out of his mind, gripped by an epiphany that he must no longer defend the guilty corporate behemoth. Wilkinson walks a tricky line between “I’m crazy as hell and I’m not gonna take it any more” ravings and newfound moral clarity, but his character seems to represent a problem facing Gilroy himself: having so much he wants to say that he isn’t sure whether to whisper or scream.
The surprising thing is how much of it works despite this density of content. Gilroy works terrifically with all his actors, and he nails details that exist only in the margins. But as satisfying as Michael Clayton is in bits and pieces, it misses the chance to be something more. When you know where you want to go, you need something to tell you that the best way to get there is often a straight line.