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By Pete Vonder Haar | October 13, 2007

Michael Clayton was once an accomplished district attorney, now he “solves problems” for Kenner, Bach and Ledeen, one of New York’s largest corporate law firms. He’s the guy who gets the call when a client flees the scene of an accident, or needs help getting their son out of a Barbados jail cell. He’s not keen on his job as a fixer, contemptuously referring to himself as a “janitor.” If that wasn’t enough, Clayton (George Clooney) has a week to come up with $75,000 to pay off his creditors in a failed restaurant venture.

And to top it off, he’s been called in to deal with the strange case of his good friend, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson). Edens is (was) lead counsel in the firm’s defense of U/North, a Monsanto-like agricultural conglomerate, accused in a massive class-action lawsuit of producing a toxic herbicide. Edens, a manic-depressive, suffered a naked breakdown at a deposition and is now threatening to sabotage the entire case with evidence he claims proves U/North’s guilt. The corporation’s in-house counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) is none too confident in Clayton’s ability to rein Edens in, and begins exploring a few off-ledger options of her own to preserve the company’s case.

“Michael Clayton” is the first film directed by Tony Gilroy, scripter of the “Bourne” movies and “The Devil’s Advocate” (as well as the figure skating epic “The Cutting Edge,” but everybody makes mistakes). Gilroy shows a surprisingly sure hand for a first-timer, and keeps things moving apace, even through the more dialogue-heavy scenes.

And there are a lot of them. “Clayton” wants to be regarded as a throwback to a bygone era of thriller, but “wanting” and “having” – as the Air Force recruiter who laughed in my stricken 15-year old face when I told him I wanted to be a fighter pilot could tell you – are two vastly different things. There are no gunfughts or car chases, and little physical violence, and the film’s reliance on conversation and its fine cast is refreshing. Thematically, however, “Clayton” is not much different from recent offerings like “A Civil Action” or “Erin Brockovich.” What elevates it above the depressingly familiar storyline are the performances. Wilkinson, continuing the annoying trend of British actors playing Americans better than we play ourselves, makes Edens’ break with reality surprisingly realistic, and he imbues the man with much-needed humanity. The same goes for Swinton; Crowder is maintaining control by the thinnest of threads, and she brings this forward in a way merely showing her flop sweating in a bathroom stall never would.

But Clooney is the main man here, and the movie rests on his supple, toned shoulders. There’s enough of the hangdog in the guy on an everyday basis for him to lend a measure of authenticity to Clayton’s crisis of faith, and let’s face facts: the man likes to play to his strengths. Clooney could do brooding intensity in his sleep, but it works in his favor here. The character’s gradual ascent from self-loathing to redemption is never less than believable, especially in a fine heart-to-heart scene with his young son, and “Michael Clayton” is quite possibly Clooney’s best effort to date.

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