Saturday, December 19, 2009

“Michael Clayton” – What is this guy’s job?

Just once, I’d like to understand why the Oscar academy chooses some movies for awards over others. “Michael Clayton” received many nominations, but none were so confounding as Best Supporting Actress (Tilda Swinton), Best Picture, and Best Lead Actor (George Clooney). I’ll get to those in moment, but I have to mention another award that actually was warranted. Tom Wilkinson was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and every bit of it was deserved. Wilkinson plays the role of Arthur Edens, the lawyer who is assigned to lead the team defending UNorth. We have no idea what UNorth actually does, but they are being sued in a class-action lawsuit for making a bunch of people sick. Arthur becomes obsessed with one of the plaintiffs, a young woman who is among the sick. The law firm Arthur works for finds out that he has spent the latter part of his time making a case for the plaintiffs, so they send Clayton to track him down. The scene that cinches the nomination occurs in an alley, where Clayton has finally found him and tries to talk some sense him into him. Arthur goes from paranoid and fidgety to the collected, ruthless lawyer that Clayton knew. Wilkinson’s transition here is so flawless and complete that even Clooney (not just his character) seems taken aback. This is the kind of performance that deserves recognition.

Tildon and Clooney, on the other hand, did not come close to this level of acting. That’s what makes their nominations, and in Swinton’s case the award, so confusing. Were there no other performances that were more worthy than these? Hell, I thought the Australian girl in “Transformers” turned out a better performance than Swinton. Don’t get me wrong, Swinton is a good actress, but she didn’t even have enough screen time in this movie to warrant any recognition. She played Karen Crowder, an executive at UNorth, whose whole job seemed to be public relations and managing their surveillance team. Oddly, ninety percent of her screen time is spent preparing for and giving statements to the press. She’s obsessive compulsive in her preparations, but who cares? This does not add anything to her character. If anything, it makes her less intriguing as a cutthroat corporate executive.

Clooney’s performance wasn’t anything special either. It was typical Clooney, with less humor. What made it easy to forget was that they never described his actual job to us. They allude to him having been a lawyer at some point in his past, but now his job is loosely defined as cleaner of other people’s messes. Except, he doesn’t actually clean up the messes, just sets the stage for the lawyers who will be following him. I’d like to think the nomination had something to do with his character flaws, but there was nothing special there either. Outside of his job, he is a reformed gambler and bar owner. Unfortunately for him, his alcoholic, drug using brother screwed him over and he spends most of his free time trying to figure how to pay back whomever it is his brother owes money. We never learn this either; we are just shown the collections agent. Overall, Clooney does show some emotion and has some decent scenes, but it’s nothing the Academy should have been praising.

The biggest mystery was the Best Picture nomination. Usually, the films that get nominated are those that nobody has ever seen or heard of. “Michael Clayton” wasn’t quite that unknown, but it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster. And like Clooney’s performance, this film is very forgettable. The purpose of this film was to give a glimpse at what corporations do to protect themselves from lawsuits, even when they know they are completely guilty. As I said before, Clayton works for the law firm employed by UNorth and is tasked with putting Arthur back on track. Like so many movies these days, the film starts somewhere in the middle of the story, with the scene ending with Clayton’s car exploding. He isn’t in the car because he is inspecting some horses on a hill. Please don’t ask me what this means; I still haven’t figured it out. The film then jumps back about a week and the rest is shown in sequence, including the beginning scene in its proper place. My wife tried to explain the cinematic value of this, and maybe she’s right, but I don’t think it would have mattered. They could have just cut the scene from the beginning and left it in its proper place. The film was also muddied with Clayton’s son and wife separation, the relationships with various other family members, his brother’s money situation and his gambling problem. This made the main plot less important and less developed than it could have been.

Unfortunately, the Academy will continue to nominate unworthy films and performances and we will continue to be inundated with more films like this. If you want to see a good law movie dealing with lawsuits, check out “Runaway Jury” or “Erin Brokovich.” At least the Academy got it right with “Erin Brokovich.”

Rating: Disagree with me as much as you want, but ask for eight dollars back. They don’t even tell you his job, for chrissakes.

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