Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is what is known as a fixer in that he takes the trickier cases that come to his law firm and manages to make them go away with his insider knowledge. But even professionally, he's not in great shape, as he wishes to be moved up the ladder of success while around his ears his personal life is taking a hammering, what with his divorce, his unreliable family, his gambling addiction that he is doing his best to give up - and the small matter of his colleague, Arthur Evans (Tom Wilkinson), having a nervous breakdown in the middle of presenting a case to a wealthy corporate client...
Right up until just before the end, this film looks to be the anti-Erin Brockovich, which as Steven Soderbergh was on board as a producer, might not have been too much of a coincidence. Where Erin was an outsider breaking into the double dealings of big business, Michael is already very much on the inside, and where she took on the bad guys in crowdpleasing fashion, everything about him speaks of being a loser, someone who is going from having it all on a plate to having that torn out of his hands. Well, not everything spoke to Clayton's loser status, as for a start he was being played by one of the most successful movie stars in the world.
So maybe Wilkinson would have made a more believable shlub, but he didn't have the cachet of Clooney, so here the star earned an Oscar nomination with his low key, unshowy performance. If anything you feel he could have done less of toning down the charisma, as while that was in the service of the character, it did tend to drain the tension from what could have been a neat, seventies-style conspiracy thriller. The insistence of first-time director Tony Gilroy for making this appear as drab as possible wasn't much help in that department, and although there was an explosion and a murder chilling in its efficiency, you'd never know he was the man partly responsible for making the Bourne franchise the success it was.
In fact, the only actor going all out was Wilkinson as the mentally ill lawyer who has been working on the same case for six years and has finally cracked - not the case, but his mind. We're meant to accept that this has come about due to a crisis of conscience as the company he's representing, and in whose offices he had his meltdown, is covering up some dodgy weedkiller that has resulted in hundreds of deaths that they are trying to sweep under the carpet because of the huge amount of money they would have to shell out in compensation. Arthur is all ready to blow the whistle on them, something they react to by putting him under their own surveillance and dogging his every move.
This is what Clayton gradually discovers over the course of the story, and we piece together the plot equally slowly as Gilroy was reluctant to give too much away too soon. Once you have it worked out, you can see why, as this would make an average two-parter of a long running television series as far as its intrigue goes, so what you're left with is some admittedly classy stylings and solid performances. Among those is Tilda Swinton's Oscar-winning turn as the company's advisor who is undergoing her own crisis, as if to show the effects of this level of corruption are not on a one-way street, but it's very easy to allow the film to wash over you as you acknowledge its skill yet fail to be arrested or better, outraged by the implications of the narrative until it's too late in the day. Couple that to the way that most of the characters talk in speeches at each other, and you have a moderately pleasing work that seems to be about to fulfil its potential but never really does. Music by James Newton Howard.