Saturday, February 23, 2008

Movies: Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton: a perfectly serviceable film that everyone kind of wanted to see, but not enough to actually make them go see it. I, too, saw the trailer long ago and said to myself, oh, yes, I'll see that, but then never quite got around to it until the night before the Oscars (and I doubt that most people even made it by then. Honestly, it's a drama (hard enough to bring the crowds out for that) about lawyers. Starring George Clooney, but come on, he hasn't been People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive since 2006, and the average moviegoer gets bored fast. Plus, there's no sex—not even one kiss!—so who cares?

The fact of the matter is that Michael Clayton felt like a lot of George Clooney movies (it was surprisingly similar to the Oceans movies, except set in a New York law firm instead of a Vegas casino, and with a neurotic type A executrix instead of buxom honey): excellently filmed, cleanly scripted, proficiently acted, satisfyingly moraled, and kind of dispassionate. Considering that the entire plot circles around an attorney who's gone off the deep end (expertly played (as always) by Tom Wilkinson), one might expect some passion. But while the audience certainly sees Wilkinson accurately portraying passion, we don't get all that jazzed up. We just feel the kind of reticent smug-ness that George Clooney/Danny Ocean constantly emanates.

Which brings me around to the moral behind the movie: it's kind of heavy-handed. Corporations are bad and little people on farms are their innocent victims; corporate lawyers are bad, mood-stabilizing medications (produced by pharmaceutical corporations!) are bad, and only those who step outside of the box can save and be saved. I don't think that the points made are not valid, but I do think that they are rather. . . shall I say unproblematized? I don't demand that movies be realistic, or fair, or intelligent, but if you are marketing yourself as such, you ought to realize that your thinking audience is going to expect a well-shaded, somewhat nuanced argument. Otherwise, your audience is going to walk out feeling a bit dispassionate.

To problematize my own argument, I will point out that a certain amount of dispassion is absolutely integral to the film's plot and tone, and that all of that dispassion is simmering under the flesh of the brilliantly sweaty Tilda Swinton, who manifests precisely the reasons why I decided not to be what I once thought that I wanted to be (that is, a neurotic type A executrix). I didn't recognize her from any other movie I had seen before, so was even more impressed when I saw her in "real life" at the Oscars, and saw the intensity of the transformation.* Swinton's lid-on-a-pot-boiling-over intensity aside, the film is, as I said at the beginning, simply serviceable. A little more gray area (no jokes about Clooney's hair, now) could have made it great.

*Explanatory digression: Some actors and actresses (like, I think I'm arguing herein, George Clooney) always exude themselves, no matter how strong their performance is. Cate Blanchett is a brilliant Bob Dylan, but she's still Cate Blanchett the whole time. . . the only time I've ever seen her almost not Cate Blanchett is in Coffee & Cigarettes, when she plays two versions of herself having a conversation, one much more Cate-ish than the other.

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