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Clooney is a ‘fixer’

By Sam Potter

“Michael Clayton”Warner BrothersWritten and Directed by Tony Gilroy

Starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton and Sydney PollackRated R/119 minutesFour out of four stars

Fixers are an interesting lot. Unfortunately in cinema, fixers are often portrayed in their most obvious manner: a bunch of heartless spin doctors who always manage to be one step ahead of everyone else, devoid of souls, mistakes or beliefs. They seem to be almost militant in their missions — all that matters is resolving the issue at hand. No emotions, no passions, nada.

In “Michael Clayton,” George Clooney gives one of the deepest, most thorough and compelling portrayals of a fixer to date. Michael Clayton (Clooney) is a fixer (or as he likes to refer to himself, a “janitor”) for Kenner, Bach and Leeden, one of the largest corporate law firms in New York. Though he has worked for the firm for nearly 16 years, Clayton is miraculously not considered a partner. Why?

As his boss and good friend, firm co-founder Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) puts it, “Anyone can be a prosecutor and be good, Michael. But at what you do, you’re great. You’ve found a niche.” Clayton is known as a “miracle worker” among his firm, helping manage and resolve the most difficult cases upon which other attorneys continually stumble.

Clayton’s abilities are soon put to the test when the firm’s senior attorney, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) suffers what appears to be a mental breakdown during the deposition of a long-running civil action lawsuit against U North, a manufacturer of agricultural chemicals. The firm has been defending U North for nearly six years, a handsomely expensive case that has kept the firm afloat. After Edens strips naked in the courtroom and proclaims his undying love to a farm girl, Clayton is called in to dam the river and find a way to maintain the firm’s reputation.

Clayton originally disregards Arthur’s histrionic rantings about how Arthur’s fed up with his lot in life. Arthur claims that he is an “accomplice,” and his guilt keeps him from taking his medication or wanting to return to work. As Clayton spends more time with him, he begins to wonder if there is truth to what Arthur says.

Like a good attorney, “Michael Clayton” sets you at ease in the first few moments. It is confident, controlled, exciting and easily one of the best films of the year.

George Clooney has amassed an impressive body of work in his career on the silver screen, but it is in “Michael Clayton” that his performance can truly be considered “career defining.” The performance is in ways akin to Adam Sandler’s revelatory performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love.” The Sandler archetype was established, but audiences were given additional insight into what fueled his violent outbursts and baby-talk social phobia. In “Clayton,” the Clooney archetype is in full display: slightly-cocky, confident and smooth-talking. But as Clayton, the warts, insecurities and failures that plague him are laid bare: Clayton is a gambling addict; he’s divorced, single and has an estranged relationship with his family; he makes foolish mistakes in his personal life, such as investing in a bar with his troubled, crack-addled younger brother.

Director Tony Gilroy does an amazing first-time job, nailing the right nuances of performance, pacing and style that keep things from becoming too hammy and theatrical. Having proved a knack for pacing, expedited character development and economical style in writing the “Bourne” movies, Gilroy crafts a drama that you don’t want to end. Just the right amount of time is spent with Clayton’s family, his partners, and the most profoundly revelatory moments are often without words.

For example, in one scene, Clayton is driving home from a nerve-wracking visit to a frantic client and suddenly stops when he notices three horses grazing on a hill. He walks up to them, entranced, and enjoys a moment of silence and simplicity. In another scene, the otherwise fast-talking Clayton is humbled at a poker game. Suddenly, he doesn’t know what to say. It’s this attention to character detail that gives “Michael Clayton” a greater heft.

This film brings to mind the epic big city movies of the ’70s, like Lumet and Scorsese used to make. Top this off with great doses of humor, suspense, irony and one of the best opening monologues since “Network” and you have one of the best movies in years.

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