"I'm not a miracle worker; I'm a janitor," George Clooney announces as the title character of Michael Clayton. He's not a literal janitor, of course. He is George Clooney, after all, Oscar-winning actor, one of the sexiest, most politically correct men alive and not someone you'd imagine pushing a mop. And Michael Clayton is no scruffy, working-class romance but a slick conspiracy thriller that harks back, like a recurring nightmare, to the paranoia of Three Days of the Condor and other 1970s suspense films.
Instead, Michael Clayton works as a metaphorical janitor, serving as custodian of the dirty secrets of New York's masters of the universe. He maintains a vague title at one of Manhattan's most powerful law firms, perhaps because "fixer" sounds too explicitly grubby. He knows everyone who knows everyone, shows an innate grasp of human frailty and works the system to make red tape or public indiscretions vanish from plain sight.
In Michael Clayton, the taut debut film from Tony Gilroy, the title character steps into a mess that might be too big for him to clean up. Senior litigator Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) goes off his meds and begins having mental breakdowns – and public stripteases – while defending giant conglomerate "uNorth" against a class-action lawsuit. Suddenly sympathetic to the case's humble litigants, Edens doesn't want to be "cured" and retains enough legal acumen to avoid the straightjacket and criminal prosecution.
Edens' crack-up, playing with gnawing intensity by Wilkinson, almost serves as background noise to Clayton's personal problems, which include a strained relationship with his young son and massive debt following a failed business deal with his screw-up brother. Clooney puts a drawn and haunted pall over his usual charisma as Clayton grapples with a rising crisis of conscience. His razor-sharp intellect collides with situations he can't think his way out of, unless he decides, as a last resort, to do good.
Not surprisingly, uNorth proves displeased with having a lawyer turned loose cannon, and rising executive Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) resolves to make the problem go away by any means necessary. Refreshingly for a Hollywood thriller, Michael Clayton refuses to paint its heroes and villains in black and white. Swinton portrays Crowder as a vulnerable career woman struggling to contain her guilt as she makes monstrous decisions. (The actress even seems to have put on a little weight, as if to make the role softer and more earthy than her usual ethereal beauty.)
Longtime screenwriter Gilroy co-wrote all three Bourne movies for Clooney's Ocean's 11 cohort Matt Damon. While shaky-cam action scenes define the Bourne films, Michael Clayton is all about eerily cool control. During the opening sequence, the camera glides through a polished, empty office late at night while Wilkinson's voice rants with surreal imagery. The law firm seems like a palace of hell, until we find a single room that's a hive of sinister, last-minute activity. Gilroy even casts the most melodramatic aspects in a realistic light. A hit squad comes across merely as two guys at work, attending to mundane details like wearing hairnets for a lethal home invasion.
Michael Clayton perfectly captures the hollowness of international capitalism as well as the street-level favors that keep a big city like New York running. We can always benefit from reminders that huge corporations don't have our best interests at heart, but Michael Clayton doesn't quite live up to the conspiracy films of earlier generations. The plot, hinging on a carcinogenic pesticide, lacks a memorable hook, and at times Wilkinson's speeches resemble a middle-age version of Tom Cruise's nice-guy conversion in Jerry Maguire.
By the end, it's unclear just how much Clayton really puts at risk when he faces his moment of truth, muffling the film's final punch. For the most part, Michael Clayton makes the most of its moral ambiguity without being merely vague. Gilroy's final shot leaves you wondering if a human soul, once sullied, can ever feel clean again.