Erin Brockovich meets The Firm in the taut, character-driven legal drama Michael Clayton. In the title role, George Clooney is a "fixer" for a powerful New York City law firm. He cleans up legal messes. The latest fiasco involves an aging friend and colleague, Arthur Edens, who has had a moral epiphany, a psychotic episode or some combination of the two.
While handling a case, Arthur cracked. And he couldn't be happier. It seems the six years he spent trying to vindicate an irresponsible conglomerate (accused of abusing chemicals that killed 468 people) drove him to a moment of clarity. Ready to switch sides in the $3 billion class-action suit, Arthur has taken to getting naked in public and spouting fever-dream philosophy with surprising lucidity. If he were to divulge certain sensitive information, it would devastate the firm and its globally leveraged corporate client.
Enter, Michael Clayton, who already expends a lot of energy wrestling his own demons. Michael's ex-wife has custody of their preteen son, Henry, with whom he tries to stay connected. Michael is also up to his eyeballs in debt, mainly from gambling and a failed business venture that estranged him from his brother Tim. Unsure of who he is apart from the role he plays, Michael is about to reach a fork in the road. He wants to help Arthur and serve his ethically challenged boss, Marty Bach. But attempts at reining in his unbalanced pal get even more complicated when the ambitious Karen Crowder (a calculating ladder-climber out to impress superiors poised to merge with Michael's firm) steps in to do her own form of damage control.
Characters are defined—and redefined—by their actions. A selfish man tries to justify leaving the scene of an accident after hitting a pedestrian, and gets vilified for it. Another guy is condemned for stealing a set of tires. For Michael and Arthur, years of soulless sharking are the "before" picture that puts redemptive ethical decisions in perspective. Conversely, endless primping and rehearsing by the buttoned-down Karen can't stave off the unraveling that occurs when bad choices come back to bite her.
Michael's concern for Arthur is genuine, and he sticks his neck out for his friend. Michael also encourages young Henry during a tender (if profane) father-son pep talk. He sees the boy escaping into a fantasy role-playing game and wants to give him a healthy sense of self, pointing out the dysfunction all around the boy and assuring him that he's a winner, strong enough to rise above questionable genetics and carve himself a good life. The downsides of divorce, alcoholism and gambling are subtly sewn into the fabric of the characters' current challenges. Michael eventually sets aside his deep-seated resentment toward his brother, giving him a second chance.
[Spoiler Warning] When Michael rebukes Karen, saying, "I'm not the guy that you kill; I'm the guy that you buy," we think he may be selling out. Quite the opposite. He does the noble thing, even though the ripple effect may wreak personal havoc. As the credits roll, we study his expression during a contemplative cab ride, his eyes reflecting relief, satisfaction and a what-have-I-just-done anxiety. Indeed, even doing the right thing can have consequences.
Nothing is shown, though Arthur describes in detail how he received fellatio from a pair of prostitutes. We also learn that the lawyer stripped naked in public on more than one occasion, and may harbor an unhealthy attraction toward a pretty young witness. We get several lewd comments about male anatomy. Michael learns of a case in which his firm's client—a stripper—keeps calling the home of the married man whom she entertained. He also alludes to his prodigal brother's adulterous dalliances with a waitress who wound up pregnant. Karen is shown wearing only a slip and bra.
A man is accosted, stabbed with a hypodermic needle and later injected with a fatal dose of some drug. A car bomb explodes. An angry woman smashes a drinking glass against the wall.
Crude or Profane Language
Along with sexual remarks, this is the film's downfall. There are more than 75 profanities, including numerous f-words, vulgar anatomical slang, nearly a dozen s-words and approximately 20 abuses of divine names (the bulk of which consist of "g--d--n" and "Jesus").
Drug and Alcohol Content
Several characters smoke cigarettes. The failed business venture of Michael and Tim (a recovering alcoholic) was a bar. Wine and liquor are consumed socially in several scenes. A drug is used to murder a man, and pills are planted on the body to make it look like suicide.
There are references to Arthur being off his medication. Michael strongly suggests that he take pills to stabilize his moods.
Other Negative Elements
Henry lies to his mother and shows no remorse when she calls him on it. In spite of his past gambling problem, Michael unwisely revisits a poker room. Characters break the law to support friends or pursue information.
Hollywood's passion for hammering sinister corporations and the unscrupulous lawyers who defend them has spawned numerous films. Still, there's a refreshingly complex humanity about Michael Clayton, an engrossing, Grisham-esque legal thriller that manages to build tension and explore the ins and outs of its case without ever setting foot inside a courtroom. The acting is first-rate, the dialogue authentic. One chilling exchange finds two average people doing an awkward semantic tango as they discuss killing a man, avoiding language that could incriminate them. Credit first-time director Tony Gilroy, who also wrote the screenplay. But that's where the blame for Michael Clayton's flaws lies as well.
Gilroy's script is riddled with profanity, including numerous f-words, a crass sexual exchange and egregious abuses of God's name. Why is that necessary? We know that Gilroy can create a densely packed PG-13 drama without sacrificing tight, engaging dialogue. He did it in all three of the Bourne movies. He could have done it here. Instead, he lets extremely salty language distract from an otherwise fascinating story about flawed people coming to grips with their true selves, living with the fallout of sinful choices and, in some cases, deciding that it's never too late to do the right thing.