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"Michael Clayton" takes its time, but it's worth it

I've always thought it's a little weird that the movies and booksabout the legal system are the ones that get called "thrillers."

It's just a genre term, sure, but the movies that revolve around thecase of GiantCo v. Screwed Customer are -- by nature -- usually far lessthrilling than the ones that revolve around the guy in the mask withthe chainsaw v. the carload of hapless victims, or the ones withthe really big animals that are also against the hapless victims, orthe ones with two rival gangs whose ongoing feud begins to catchhapless victims in the crossfire.

"Michael Clayton" is a thriller that lives up to its genre'shyperbolic name, but isn't afraid to take its time establishing itselfwith a lot of not-immediately-relevant scenes before coming round toits big problem: Tom Wilkinson, the head defense attorney for a $3billion class action lawsuit, has gone off his meds and is starting toask the kind of questions that could torpedo the entire case.

Law firm problem-fixer George Clooney is dispatched to straightenWilkinson out and get the case back in order, but Wilkinson isn'tinterested in playing the game any longer. Under huge pressure fromhis own firm and Tilda Swinton, their client's lead counsel, Clooneymay not be able to clean things up before more drastic measures haveto be taken.

Ever since his post-"Batman and Robin" deal with the devil in which hetraded his soul for unholy acting talent, Clooney's been pretty muchlights out. The script gives him a lot to work with -- writer/directorTony Gilroy, who wrote the "Bourne" movies, strings together that kindof high-context dialogue where the best way to follow along is toaccept that you're going to be confused but will probably pick it uplater -- but Clooney's performance as a used-up cog is, like the movieitself, understated to the point where his few flashes of violentfeeling stand out all the brighter.

Also, Swinton is either from an advanced species of theater-trainedaliens or extremely talented, because with Big Bad Corporations wherethe company sleazebags will do anything to sweep their TerribleSecrets under the rug, you don't exactly expect said sleazebags to beinteresting characters. Here, she probably (definitely) skipped a fewbusiness ethics lectures, but every time she gets in private and lookslike the anxiety is about to make her puke so hard she'll cough up arib, you can't help but remember she's human, too.

At times, though, it's tempting to think the movie's moral murkinessand deliberate, piece-by-piece revelation of its plot are just a bunchof cool tricks to disguise the fact the Big Bad Corporation is clearlyin the wrong and just about everyone knows it even if they can't proveit. That's something that can't help but cast the people who supportit as villains and the people who oppose it as heroes. Smartly, then,"Michael Clayton" spends almost too much time with Clooney'sfrustration and attempts to get out from a job he does well but can'tbe satisfied by.

That struggle helps deflate some of the film's self-importance.Gilroy's strong direction takes care of most of the rest, creating anatmosphere of impending dread drawn tight by ice-blooded pros takingcare of business. The ending is a little too abrupt and tidy (thoughthat's blurred by the end credits sequence), and at times it seems tobe stretching for insight that isn't there, but "Michael Clayton's"that rare film that succeeds as a genre piece and something more, too.

Grade: B+

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