Arthur Edens (Wilkinson), a lawyer defending an agro-chemical corporation against a class-action suit, is overwhelmed by guilt and cracks up. Michael Clayton (Clooney), his law firms fixer, is sent to sort Arthur out, but the corporation deploy even di
This issue-led thriller-cum-star vehicle has a grabby opening. On
a night when everyone else in his powerful Manhattan law firm is up late settling a huge suit and paying off a crowd of small farmers who’ve been poisoned by a dodgy product, legal shark Michael Clayton (George Clooney) seems to backslide into gambling addiction.
He is called out of a poker game to head upstate and cope with a jittery rich client who thinks he’s run over a pedestrian and now wants his lawyers to get him off any charges. Clayton goes to the accident site and wanders off the road to look at some horses, then his car is destroyed by a bomb and we flash back a few days to find out how he got to this point and what he’s going to do about it.
The prologue is so effective it’s almost a disappointment to find out that the hit-and-run is irrelevant to the plot (we never even find out if there was a victim, let alone what happens to the scumbag driver).
Instead, writer-director Tony Gilroy concentrates on the class-action suit and the way the hero’s worldview is shaken up when his friend Arthur, the company’s attack-dog trial lawyer, wants to throw the case because he’s smitten with one particular victim (Merritt Wever).
Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), the evil chemical company’s own smart-suited monster exec, nervously calls in a real dirty-tricks crew who kill people to solve corporate problems, and the film turns into an on-the-run-from-the-goons conspiracy picture.
Title format and general theme (star-cast hero turns against his own horrible profession) evoke Jerry Maguire, and there’s more than a hint of John Grisham about the legal shenanigans (Sydney Pollack, director of The Firm, is Clayton’s boss), but it’s also a vehicle for George Clooney’s brand of wounded, charismatic liberalism.
Though well-written and played, it stacks the deck: we never see Clayton or Arthur doing the terrible things they are supposed to have been getting away with for years, so their internal struggles have little weight, and a ton of sub-plots about Michael’s family don’t help.
Strangely, with little material, Swinton makes the sweating villain, terrified of falling off the corporate ladder, more interesting than the straight-up hero.
This offers moments of suspense, some pointed scenes and star charisma, but its also a touch confused. Heads will be scratched before they roll.