From the archives: "A well-made film"

George Clooney has made a career out giving great performances in films that aren’t worthy of him.  With Syriana, Up in the Air, The Descendants, and The Ides of March, Michael Clayton (dir. Tony Gilroy, 2007) was one of a series of Clooney films doomed to be forgotten almost as soon as Oscar season came and went.  I’ve never felt the desire to revisit any of these films, well-made though some of them may be, and it’s not really surprising that when I wrote about Michael Clayton in March 2008 I was more interested in the supporting performance by Tilda Swinton—and the implications of her character—than in Clooney.  I look forward to the day when Clooney harnesses his talent to a project that’s bigger than himself.

George Clooney as the title character in Michael Clayton (dir. Tony Gilroy, 2008).

Michael Clayton is what I would call a well-made film. The direction, the writing (both by Tony Gilroy), the performances are all impeccably controlled; everything about the movie is tight; watching it you feel as though not a shot or a line has been wasted. There is, ostensibly speaking, nothing wrong with this movie. That said, I respected Michael Clayton more than I loved it. Ultimately, it didn't make me understand movies in a new way, which is what the best movies really do. But it is still a very good film.

“George Clooney, of course, has been getting much buzz for his quietly intense performance here as the title character, a burnt-out fixer at a high-power New York law firm who uncovers a corporate conspiracy led by the truly scary Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton). This is probably the best performance I've seen from Clooney. I liked the supporting performances better, though; Tom Wilkinson, always great, has a terrific, scene-stealing part in which he rants and raves and goes through all sorts of histrionics. An easy part, maybe, but Wilkinson plays it nicely.

“Swinton, who is also pretty much great in everything she's in, brings a great fierceness to her role as the monstrous Karen. In a nice touch from Gilroy, we're often given shots of her vigorous, armored, corporate self intercut with others in which she's shown vulnerable and unflattering in apartments and hotel rooms, getting dressed, rehearsing her public persona, steeling herself for the day ahead. At times, she's presented in ways that are downright unflattering--sweating and panicked in a bathroom stall, or standing in front of the mirror in her bra and slip, a little roll of fat spilling over her waistband. I can't decide whether this device is clever (in that it reveals the process by which Karen consciously performs her public persona) or conventional (in that it suggests that beneath her hard-edged exterior, she's nothing more than a pathetic, lonely woman), or both. Either way, I wanted to see more of Karen (and of Swinton): I wanted to know more about who this woman was. It would have been nice if Gilroy had explored some of the fissures in her character. Instead, we get the impression that she's fascinating, but we're always kept at a distance from her. Karen is one of the most interesting aspects of the film as well as one of its flaws.”

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