I walked out of Michael Clayton feeling something like 'let down,' although a brief examination of my expectations got to the root of the matter. Walking into Michael Clayton, I was hoping for a film along the lines of classic '70s Sidney Lumet or Alan J. Pakula; what I got was something more along the lines of an above-average '90s John Grisham adaptation.

And even that's not necessarily dismissing Michael Clayton; when you realize that it's gone off track from the destination it tried to reach, you're still gladly along for the ride. George Clooney plays the title character -- a New York lawyer with a fairly specific brief. Clayton's been at the big-time firm of Kenner, Back and Ledeen for years, but he's not a partner, and he hasn't set foot in a courtroom in a long time. He's a troubleshooter, a fixer; when a client's in the glue, Clayton's the guy with enough grease to just maybe get him unstuck. That's how we first meet him -- driving in the middle of the night to the house of a client who's gotten in trouble. Clayton can brace the man for what's coming, and guide him through it, but he can't make it go away: "I'm not a miracle worker; I'm a janitor."

And so, we get a fast understanding of Clayton: He knows how the law works -- even if he may not necessarily like it. He can fix anything -- except, it seems, his own life. He's not crazy about his work -- but it pays the bills, and he's got plenty of them. The film (after an unexpected development) flashes back a few days, to show just how Clayton got to where he is right at the moment ...


Director/screenwriter Tony Gilroy (best known for crafting fine films out of Robert Ludlum's clunky Bourne novels) sets everything up in a few short strokes: Clayton's firm is part of an ongoing class-action lawsuit being brought against U/North, a huge agribusiness conglomerate; the conglomerate's in-house counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) is in a panic because the firm's man on the case, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has apparently lost it, disrobing and shouting insanities at a deposition. Clayton's dispatched to the heartland to bail Arthur out. Clayton thinks what's going on is beneath a lawyer of Arthur's skills: "You're a legend." "I'm an accomplice!" "You're a manic-depressive." Arthur tries to get the final word: "I am Shiva, the lord of death." Clayton's closer is weary and wise: A knowing shrug, a cocked eyebrow of dismissal, a genial offer: "Let's get out of Milwaukee and talk about it."

That's some not-bad dialogue -- cynical, funny, warm and real -- and Michael Clayton does have high-quality writing throughout. Arthur is crazy, but he isn't stupid -- or, at the very least, he's crazy but still smart: He's seen through U/North -- his firm's big-money client -- and seems a lot more interested in helping the small farmers who claim to have been poisoned by U/North's pesticides and fertilizers. There's a lot of money at stake for the firm, so they put Clayton on shepherding both Edens and Crowder through the blow-up; there's far more money at stake for U/North, and they put entirely different resources into solving the problem. ....

Michael Clayton is at its best when it sticks to hard-bitten, this-is-how-the-world-works scenes between employers and employees, fathers and sons, executives and lawyers. Gilroy (with the help of supremely talented cinematographer Robert Elswit) captures a chilly world of urban grandeur and decay where the light's as gray as the choices people make. The cast around Clooney is fine as well; Wilkinson's appropriately showy, Swinton shows ice-cool composure and the cracks that spread within it, Sidney Pollack is Clayton's exasperated mentor. All great actors, and all get at least one great scene.

But along the way, Michael Clayton falls apart a little; I have to couch a little to not spoil the film, but it's always annoying when characters we've seen working at the level of highly-skilled professionals then flail about like amateurs later on because there's no other way to make the film work. It's damaging, but not fatal -- but, like I said before, it drops the film from the level of the potentially classic and into the realm of the agreeably diverting.
Much of that feeling of agreeable diversion is because Clooney's at top form -- exasperated, exhausted, glib and gutsy and craven, and all at the right moments. His best scenes as an actor come when he's playing scenes within Clayton's family -- opposite his estranged son, his doper brother, his cop cousin. When the thriller-style material reaches a climax, Clooney the actor steps aside for the benefit of Clooney the movie-star, and the heartfelt acting moments and character duets make way for brisk one-liners and righteous anger. And there are worse things to watch than Clooney being a movie star -- it's just a bit of a shift, and it feels a little out-of-place.

But there's a moment before that climax that's still sticking with me -- a scene where Clayton knows he can solve every problem he has, as long as he's willing to do the wrong thing. That moment -- with Clooney wordlessly showing us everything he's going through -- is a dark flash of one man's struggle, and of our struggle, too: morality versus money, expediency versus ethics. It's a blessed moment and a cursed one, because it's where Michael Clayton most firmly demonstrates what it might have been, and after that you can feel Michael Clayton turn into nothing more than an above-average thriller -- gourmet popcorn fare made just in time for Oscar season.