You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: Michael Clayton

Spare and unhurried, "Michael Clayton" features strong performances and a solid story.

Michael Clayton - George Clooney Arthur Edens - Tom Wilkinson Karen Crowder - Tilda Swinton Marty Bach - Sydney Pollack Barry Grissom - Michael O'Keefe

Spare and unhurried, writer Tony Gilroy’s directorial debut “Michael Clayton” features strong performances and a solid story, drawn from the familiar well of faceless corporations grinding ordinary people through their profit-making machinery. Yet Gilroy’s fidelity to his script comes at the expense of the pacing, which initially lumbers forward so assiduously as to feel like a throwback to an earlier era. If George Clooney’s recent choices have oscillated between serious showcases (think “Syriana”) and moneymaking endeavors (the “Ocean’s” series), this falls squarely into the former camp, presenting Warner Bros. with a classy but difficult-to-market, no-frills, few-thrills thriller.


Having written the first two installments in the “Bourne” trilogy (and co-written the third), Gilroy seems determined to catch his breath, casting Clooney (also among the eight producers, along with co-star Sydney Pollack) as the title character — a “fixer” for a large corporate law firm, New York’s Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. He’s the kind of can-do guy whom colleagues bill as a “miracle worker” but who, in world-weary fashion, describes himself as “a janitor.”


Struggling with financial troubles brought on by an entrepreneurial gambit, Michael is asked to clean up after one of the firm’s top litigators, Arthur (a terrific Tom Wilkinson), suffers a breakdown while taking a deposition defending multinational conglomerate U/North against a multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit. The timing could hardly be worse, given that the firm’s lead partner (Pollack) is in the process of orchestrating a merger and doesn’t want anything scuttling the deal.


Gradually, Michael learns that Arthur’s apparent madness might stem from the time he has invested in this case, exposing him to smoking-gun evidence of corporate malfeasance that puts U/North’s chief counsel (Tilda Swinton) into a panicky sweat. Those questions, and how he resolves them, will ultimately test Michael’s moral compass.


Concentrated in a four-day window and told primarily in flashback, the movie is somewhat chaotic and hard to follow through the early going before it zeroes in on this relatively simple premise — one that will be highly familiar to anybody raised on “Don’t trust big corporation” thrillers from the 1970s, like “The Parallax View” and “The China Syndrome.” Then again, given the historic parallels — with Vietnam-era mistrust of institutions morphing into the Iraq war — the recurrence of this formula isn’t particularly surprising.


Still, the stakes in those earlier films felt considerably higher, and the only uncertainty here is not how far the U/North folks will go to protect their interests, but what a cynical soul like Michael will do under the circumstances. (In an odd bit of happenstance, the movie overlaps on several fronts with “Damages,” an FX drama about a multibillion-dollar civil suit that also unfolds through flashbacks.)


This lack of fireworks makes “Michael Clayton” refreshing in a sense, eschewing traditional white hats and black hats for more realistic shades of gray — a tone well represented in Robert Elswit’s cinematography and James Newton Howard’s understated score. In that regard, it’s also a strong if less flamboyant vehicle for Clooney, playing a laconic, never-let-them-see-you-sweat type that contrasts nicely with Wilkinson’s standout work as an agitated attorney on the edge.


On the downside, some of the peripheral threads — especially Michael’s relationship with his family, both as an irritated brother and a single dad — occupy time at the outset but really don’t lead anywhere, and the conclusion leaves a few key questions conspicuously unanswered.


For all its strengths, then, “Michael Clayton” poses a challenge for Warner Bros. that owes as much to those attributes as its weaknesses — just the kind of thorny situation, actually, where the marketing department might yearn to call in a fixer.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: Michael Clayton

Production: A Warner Bros. release presented in association with Samuels Media and Castle Rock Entertainment of a Mirage Enterprises/Section Eight production. Produced by Sydney Pollack, Steven Samuels, Jennifer Fox, Kerry Orent. Executive producers, Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, James Holt, Anthony Minghella. Directed, written by Tony Gilroy.

Crew: Camera (Technicolor), Robert Elswit; editor, John Gilroy; music, James Newton Howard; music supervisor, Brian Ross; production designer, Kevin Thompson; art director, Clay Brown; set decorators, George De Titta Jr., Charles M. Potter, Paul Cheponis, Christine Mayer; costume designer, Sarah Edwards; sound (Dolby/DTS/SDDS), Michael Barosky; supervising sound editor, Paul Soucek; assistant director, Steve Apicella; second unit camera, Joe Collins; casting, Ellen Chenoweth. Reviewed at Warner Bros. screening room, Burbank, Aug. 23, 2007. (In Venice Film Festival -- competing; Toronto, Deauville film festivals.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 120 MIN.

With: Michael Clayton - George Clooney Arthur Edens - Tom Wilkinson Karen Crowder - Tilda Swinton Marty Bach - Sydney Pollack Barry Grissom - Michael O'Keefe

More Film

  • They Shall Not Grow Old restoration

    Peter Jackson Documentary 'They Shall Not Grow Old' Nabs Limited China Release

    The Peter Jackson produced and directed World War I documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” will hit Chinese theaters on November 11. Though it will roll out nationwide, it will do so via the China’s National Arthouse Alliance, which has limited screens. The 2018 documentary puts together interviews with WWI veterans and more than 100-year-old [...]

  • Zombieland Double Tap

    'Zombieland: Double Tap' Hopes to Recapture Raunchy Zombie Magic, 10 Years Later

    Audiences may have a few questions about the sequel to 2009’s hit “Zombieland,” which opens Friday. Why did it take 10 years to make a second one, after the first grossed $102.4 million worldwide on a $23 million budget, making it the third-biggest zombie movie of all time (second-biggest if you don’t count “Hotel Transylvania,” [...]

  • AMC TheatresShop signs, Los Angeles, America

    AMC Theatres Accused of Firing VP Who Complained of Gender Pay Gap

    A former vice president at AMC Theatres filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday, accusing the company of firing her after she complained that she was paid far less than her male peers. Tonya Mangels, who was vice president of product marketing, said that in March 2018 her supervisor inadvertently sent her a spreadsheet that included [...]

  • Sir Elton John poses for photographers

    Elton John Calls 'Lion King' Remake a 'Huge Disappointment'

    Elton John isn’t feeling the love for Disney’s latest live-action remake. In an interview with GQ U.K., the legendary musician criticized Disney’s remake of “The Lion King,” citing the film’s music as a “huge disappointment.” “The new version of The Lion King was a huge disappointment to me, because I believe they messed the music [...]

  • Fiddlin'

    Film Review: 'Fiddlin''

    Not many forms of music have “old-” actually built into their name as a prefix. So it’s a given that the practitioners of the 200-year-old genre known as “old-time music” will wear their antiquity proudly in “Fiddlin’,” a documentary set in and around the 80th annual Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Va. What may not [...]

  • Jonah Hill attends the press conference

    Jonah Hill Passes on Role in 'The Batman'

    After being offered a role in “The Batman,” Jonah Hill has moved on from the project. Why exactly Hill is passing is currently unknown, and insiders tell Variety that when the news was initially reported, it was very early in the negotiations and that a deal was far from closing. The news comes after Zoe [...]

  • Daniel Kaluuya Elizabeth Moss

    SCAD Savannah Film Festival Honorees Include Daniel Kaluuya, Elisabeth Moss

    Daniel Kaluuya, Elisabeth Moss, Danielle Macdonald, Aldis Hodge, Valerie Pachner, Samantha Morton, Sienna Miller, Alan Silvestri and Olivia Wilde are set to be honored at the 22nd Annual SCAD Savannah Film Festival. Breakout Award honorees include Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jharrel Jerome, Mena Massoud and Camila Morrone. Macdonald, who appears on Netflix in “Unbelievable” and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content