Up in a Manhattan tower, behind racquetball-court-sized windows, stands Michael Clayton (George Clooney), going about the business of a powerful lawyer in one of the largest and most respected firms in the city. What does he do? What vital service does he perform for his species that would hoist him so far above the teeming masses? He gets rich guys out of jams, mostly. Michael is a fixer, spending his day fielding telephone calls about drunk driving and prostitution busts and who he can call down at city hall to make something go away. There's a large black Mercedes in it for him, but this is a dog's life, and by the time we find him, a decade and a half in, he's well worn down by fleas. Michael can hardly muster much more than a sigh when he finds out his friend and colleague Arthur (Tom Wilkinson) has just stripped down naked in a deposition.
Written and directed by Tony Gilroy, screenwriter of the "Bourne" franchise, "Michael Clayton" hinges on that deposition, part of an ongoing tort case against a large Monsanto-esque company called U/North, accused of using chemicals they knew to be fatally toxic. Arthur, the firm's top lawyer who's worked diligently and brilliantly for six years to stymie the plaintiffs, has gone off his medicine and over to the other side. Michael is sent to get him under control, but U/North isn't taking any chances, and the result is an impressively smart and complex thriller that manages to reveal a bit more about human nature than we'd care to see.
The film opens in the present and jumps back a few days so that what at first seems mysterious will gradually clarify. The device gives Gilroy room to develop his main character and that character's slimy milieu. Michael and Arthur realize their vocation is lying, and they've grown to hate themselves for it. Arthur has his medication to help and Michael owned a bar, but he lost it to the auction house. But now's no time to quit. And if he wants to stave off the loan sharks, he'd better convince his buddy, too.
Gilroy lets the tension down a little in favor of this dull dread that the good guys, wherever they are, have already lost. The bad guys are simply busy cleaning up the mess and counting the money. The heart begins to pump a little at the expectation of a true downer. Will the movie end with some kind of larger insight or satire? A lesson about the intractability of an ignoble life? No, it's just a thriller in the end, with the cops busting in and the hero redeemed and humble. But it was a good ride while it lasted. (R) 120 min. S