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.