Tony Gilroy’s directing debut gets vintage George Clooney, who remains wedded to the monochromic grimness of “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “The Good German.”
Michael Clayton (Clooney) is a damage control specialist for a New York law firm. When friend and colleague Arthur (Tom Wilkinson) turns erratic while defending dubious multinational U/North, Clayton is drafted to fix things — and into the corporate and personal abyss we go. Little is at it seems and much is (predictably) rotten in the state of U/North, a chemical company facing a class-action suit over pesticides. U/North’s fiendish general counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton in classy, Wicked Witch form) gives the Dark Side its luster. The situation gradually slips out of control.
Clooney’s confidence-stricken Clayton is by turn clever and sour (“I am not a miracle-worker, I’m a janitor,” he says), his personal life in shambles, his loyalties under siege. No doubt about it, Clooney is the millennium’s Cary Grant, its most watchable, credible, and engaging star.
Too bad his considerable wit (remember “Out of Sight”?) is sacrificed in favor of such relentlessly pensive sincerity. Still, Gilroy knows how to make a smart thriller, and 10 minutes of this is better than many a whole attempt.