It’s my first solo night in Los Angeles and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. You see my VP of Operations, Dave O’Hanlon, who accompanied me on my cross-country voyage caught a terrible cold on our way West, so he rightfully chose to stay in bed. I, however, decided to forage slightly north up Lincoln Boulevard toward Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade for a quick look at the new Apple Store and a glimmer of hope for a movie at 5 o’clock.
I hate crowds so I chose “Michael Clayton.” This was my thinking: It’s a movie that has been out for more than a bit – and disappointed at the Academy Awards. Good sign, I thought. I was encouraged even more when the pony-tailed blond with creamy sky-blue-eye-shadow working the ticket counter told me with a smile: “Honey, the theater’s empty.”
I bought a ticket and hunkered down with my Sugar-Free Red Bull.
“Michael Clayton,” the movie, I loved it. The theater was horrible … freezing; I felt like I was trapped in the factory warehouse in “Rocky.” And the plot? The stratagem was maudlin and dull. I had seen it umpteen times before.
But Ahh! The performances! The performances! Clooney, Pollack, Wilkinson and Swinton. Suddenly, I realized how much this film benefited from its serendipitous casting. Switch out those four muses, and the energy and tension might have just evaporated. But it didn’t – not for me.
Tilda Swinton, whom I had not seen before was as cold and clinical as the picture needed her to be. In one pivotal scene, Swinton can be seen rehearsing the lies she will give in an interview to which Sidney Pollack needs her “step-up.” First-time director Tony Gilroy helps blur the line between fiction and fact by interspersing her practiced speech with the actual media cross-examination. It's one of those crisp interactions Gilroy uses throughout the film to wring deeper meaning out of what could have been a simple scene. Swinton won the 2008 “Best Supporting Actress” Academy Award for her performance. No surprise, there.
The plot itself centers around Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson,) a treasured friend of Clayton’s, a bipolar victim who has stopped taking his pills and now glows with reckless zeal and conviction. Edens is by far the most brilliant lawyer in the firm; he is the lead attorney in the $3 billion class-action suit filed against U/North -- the company that is being sued by salt-of-the-earth farmers because of a germ killer U/North used despite knowing it was hazardous to people's health. The issue … or “challenge” as Clayton espouses, is that the brilliant Edens simply cannot stay on his meds. If it were only that simple.
Let’s just say the story is about the lawsuit without really being about the lawsuit, if that makes sense. The picture, after all, isn't titled U/North, correct?
The bottom line is that the real tension in the film comes from Clayton’s zeal to go toe to toe with U/North's steely in-house chief counsel (Swinton) and his race against the clock to pull together the unraveling threads of a massive conglomerate's tapestry of lies.
"Clayton" is a resonant throwback with deep roots in the political thrillers of the 1970s: slick, smart and saturated in dramatic paranoia. A brainy pastiche of set-ups, pay-offs, company malfeasance and revenge in absorbing shades of grey.
Finally a film that doesn’t just make you think; it makes you feel.