Gilroy's 'Michael Clayton' is a great legal whodunit

Michael Clayton (R)

3 stars out of 4

With a movie this good, you can forgive its generic, mean-nothing title and its all-over-the-place first act. You can also give it additional points for being the product of a first-time director who wrote the best overall action series in the history of movies, the Jason Bourne trilogy.

Filmmaker Tony Gilroy aims high and hits most of his targets in this legal whodunit, which would have been right at home in the pantheon of the great conspiracy thrillers of the early '70s. If Gilroy had stuck with the A-to-B, thoughtful simplicity of the "Bourne" films instead of testing the audience's patience with an overly complicated set-up, "Michael Clayton" would have been an unqualified classic.

Clayton (George Clooney) used to be an ambitious district attorney. But because of a gambling addiction and a general dislike of courtroom litigation, he took a job behind-the-scenes as a self-described "janitor," cleaning up the messes left by high-profile corporate industrialist clients.

Clayton has sold much of his soul along the way, and is almost as close to the moral breaking point as his senior partner Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson). Edens has just had a major ethical meltdown during a deposition that would have settled a potentially catastrophic, class-action lawsuit.

The lawsuit - something along the lines of the one in "Erin Brokovich" - is never made crystal clear, and it doesn't really figure into the Big Picture of the overall story. The thrust is how Clayton reacts to each unfolding wrinkle and how his own dwindling psyche adjusts. With imminent bankruptcy nipping at his heels courtesy of a bad business decision he made to help out his ne'er-do-well brother, Clayton's motivation is challenged and he cracks - but never fully folds.

Gilroy has most of the plot covered, but because he's gone so Tarantino/Soderbergh with the overly ambitious, out-of-sequence narrative, the story kind of waffles. Make no mistake; it's never less than riveting. Clooney - now clearly established as the both the Cary Grant and Sean Connery of his generation - walks that fine line between cool, unfettered suave and complete mental disintegration. Never once does he reveal his hand.

Clooney ends up making the movie appear better than it actually is; which is a testament to Gilroy's spot-on casting. Clooney acts without actually showing that he's acting. Too many people discount this type of understated performance as being distant or self-contained, or indicating a lack of talent, yet Clooney exhibits a level of vulnerability that is neither calculated nor offhanded.

What will be most interesting is to see is what Gilroy will do with his next project. This guy has the makings to become the next Scorsese or Coppola. He's certainly got the chops. All he needs to do is streamline his approach. With a little less sleight-of-hand and more of a meaty core story, he'll nail the peripherals with relative ease. (Warner Bros.)

E-mail Michael Clark at clarkwriter@mindspring.com.