Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton is the kind of film about which I usually stay silent, because it's a high quality understated thriller with good performances and nothing that I can point a finger at and mock. Where's the fun in these unsolicited - and pretty much unread - reviews if the project's all high quality and worthy? So generally, even when I go to something which will improve my mind and morals, I'm considerate enough of my non-existent audience that I keep quiet about it.

For this, I will make an exception, because it's not so very often that a film leaves me reflecting on my own personal situation. This is no doubt because - so far as I know - no-one's put any money into making a movie about a sarcastic bureaucrat with a bad leg who leads a humdrum life with no real challenges. And if they did, I wouldn't go to that movie, because I go to the movies to get away from my humdrum life, not revisit it at vast personal expense. Generally, I expect Hollywood to blow stuff up for me so that I can hoot and chuckle. Nothing like that happens in my day to day life any more.

Why single Michael Clayton out? Well, it's got one scene stealing performance from Tom Wilkinson, who gets to play the only character in the film with any morality. Gosh, it must have been hard to get an actor willing to play a character with bipolar disorder who has an epiphany, becomes a crusader for good and is then martyred for his troubles. Anyhow, the casting directors were equal to the challenge, and Wilkinson, all snarkiness aside, is more than equal to the role. What interested me more was Clooney, playing the eponymous Michael Clayton (I should say that I do not plan to use the word eponymous in every single post I make from now on, it's just working out that way). Michael Clayton is a fixer for a large law firm. When something has gone wrong which can't be litigated away, Clayton's sent in to find a way to make it go away by other means. So when one of the firm's star litigators goes mad, of course it's Clayton they call to make the problem go away. And from the outset, we're given to understand that Clayton is a mysterious miracle worker who inspires awe all around him. As the film goes on, we see he's a very flawed man whose personal integrity is a distant memory and who inspires unease rather than awe in most of the people he works with.

The film is shown mostly as a flashback - it starts near the end of the story, then shoots back in time to show what happened, and then ends by showing what happened next. And it does occur to me that as I'm typing this that there's probably a first draft screenplay out there where George doesn't get out alive - where the bomb that blows up his car ten minutes into the movie goes off while he's still in it, rather than fortuitously when he gets out. Everything which happens in the last ten minutes of the movie is somehow out of tone with what's gone before; a bit too pat, a bit too brightly lit. I find myself wondering if they reshot at the end to cheer things up after focus groups told them the ending was too downbeat.

So for, so what. The neat bit is watching George Clooney, who underplays everything and really underplays this, show a man gradually and believably waking up to his own worthlessness. This is no small thing to do - it's the stuff of the great tragic dramas, and it's arguably a bit of a stretch for someone like Clooney, who's got so much sheer charisma he doesn't really need to act if it doesn't fit in with his schedule of endorsements for Nescafe and Fiat and Armani and starving people in Darfur. But act he does. And it's the kind of performance which underlines the difference between acting for the stage and acting for cinema. In cinema, the camera can get in so close and stay on you for so long that the tiniest movements of the face can tell the audience everything they want to know. In Ocean's 13, you can watch Clooney stealing scene after scene with a shrug and a grimace at whatever piece of idiocy has just unfolded. In Michael Clayton, you can see him do even more with even less. It's wonderful stuff.

We see him for the first time doing his stuff for a drunken driver - and he seems disinterested, almost contemptuous. But we've been told he's a miracle worker; why is he so off hand, so disdainful of his customer? Maybe it's just a bad day. Then we go back to four days in the past, and by the time we see that "first" encounter again we've seen the thousand tiny winces of regret and self disgust flit across Clooney's face as he confronts the reality of what he does and what he's become in the course of doing it. And everything falls into place.

Which is where Hollywood coincides with reality. Because for a while now I've been asking myself why it should be that I seem to be happier - and more the sort of person I always wanted to be - in this job than I ever was in my last job. The work I do now is intellectually undemanding, humdrum and unglamorous. The work I did before was demanding, high profile, and glamorous. I knew exactly what I was doing and how do it well and I was taken seriously by people who arguably should have known much better. People in my old line of work show up with speaking parts in movies all the time. For God's sake, Ralph Fiennes has played someone with my old job title. So why am I happier now than I was before?

Because these days, I don't have to sell out anything just to get through the working day. I don't have to accept each day that the cost of getting even a little of what's right is to give up most of it and pretend it was never right to begin with. I don't have to pretend to like people who ought, in a just world, to be chased out of town by large and hungry dogs. And I don't have to spend any of my time trying to cook up justifications for things which should never have been done. Things for which the only truthful excuse was, "We had to do it because we were scared of what would happen if we did the right thing." No more of that. And no-one even had to blow up the Mercedes I've never owned.

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