I disliked Erin Brockovich; it was 'rousing' in a dull-witted way, with the outcome never in doubt and the characters warmed-over artifacts of some bygone decade (that's not a compliment). Brockovich is a 'women's picture,' all about weepy sympathy and identification with the buxom heroine, more specifically sympathy for her sympathy, and the audience is supposed to be moved by the depth of her concern - all very Christian ('He did this all for you'). I saw it on a date with a Julia Roberts lover and spent half the running time wishing we were watching something nastier, a less simplistic, Manichean film. That movie's protagonist has only a single flaw: she works so hard to save everyone, to love everyone, that she almost hurts the people around her, full stop. (Luckily they're also stalwart and true, and stick around to share her love as the credits roll.)
In short: a saccharine nightmare with decolletage. (Its strong point, Roberts's complex relationship with Aaron Eckhart, is the one reason to stick around once you've figured out what sort of movie you're watching.)
Michael Clayton is in some ways the 'men's picture' analogue of that rabble-rouser: George Clooney's titular 'fixer' takes care of his crazy buddy, looks after his son for his ex-wife, plays poker, exudes exactly zero sexual energy (maybe the beautiful man's greatest onscreen achievement), and fucks up the mostly-villain of the piece, Tilda Swinton's nervous corporate lawyer (and his buddy's doppelganger). It's good but not great, a movie in which everything is perfectly fine and all the actors do great work, and it's clearly a smart movie - but in the end it feels a lot like a genre exercise, its moral message (roughly: 'Don't sell out') clear as a bell under obfuscating layers of grime and grit. As the GF said over the very First-Time-Directorial closing shot: 'He's still going to hell, though.' And ultimately the 'complexity' of the film is just that straightforward: Clooney's character is Bad (or rather amoral and disaffected but with a heart of gold, of course), then his buddy is killed and so now he's Good, and at the end we cheer for him not because he's changed but because he's won. For a movie with so much characterological hand-wringing - really, he pulls over to look at three horses that remind him of the illustration in the novel? Really? - there isn't much complexity to it.
I know, I'm spoiled: Deadwood (which is at the interpersonal level all about 'living into' your condition of alienation/connection) and The Wire (which is so brutally frank about inescapable institutional compromise) have made it harder for me to enjoy telegraphed, foreshortened characterizations like Tony Gilroy's here. Which is too bad; it's not a bad movie at all, and it made me want to call out the writer rather than the director (they're the same guy - convenient). Actually the movie seemed to be insisting that the audience members, or at least those assholes inclined to badger their friends with movie-'critical' chatter, do just that...
Unlike Brockovich, Clayton is a very writerly film, ostentatiously so, sometimes irritatingly so: it opens with a great monologue that's nevertheless basically line-for-line Chayefsky, heads off into slow-moving family-background scenes to flesh out its Hiro Protagonist (ahem), follows a flashback/loop structure that smells a little of screenwriter Tony Gilroy's overwritten third Bourne film, and (most egregiously) works in a children's fantasy novel that echoes thematic and plot points. If you didn't know going in that it was the writer's first shot at directing, that he'd written the movie for himself and spent six years trying to sell it, you'd easily guess it from the snazzy, brisk, thuddingly 'clever' Act One.
I was totally enthralled by the sweeping gestures and dialogic oddities of Michael Clayton's first half and enjoyed its much more straightforward, procedural second half; it's a good movie all around, and Tony Gilroy seems to know what he's doing behind the camera. His choice of lead actor (he pursued Clooney for years, apparently) redounds to his credit. But I side with the critics who found it enjoyable ultimately as a genre exercise and diversion, rather than any deep inquiry into values. (Gilroy's original pitch, according to his director commentary, was 'a restaurant film about the kitchen' - a backroom-lawyering potboiler with a movie star role and no courtroom scenes. And hey, I flipped out for The Pelican Brief and The Firm same as you (in print, not onscreen, God help us all). But I'm guessing that Michael Clayton differed from John Grisham's dark devilish fantasies in its writer's intent: Gilroy didn't want to make a black-n-white parable about the costs of moral inattentiveness, he wanted to make a searching character study along those lines. If you ask me, he should've stuck to his original pitch: faster, nastier, creepier, a little more inside-baseball.
But then Gilroy's not a lawyer, and nothing about Michael Clayton suggests legal expertise or insight; if the central question, even at the mechanical level, is 'How did this man get to this point, and what does he do now that he knows what he knows?' then Clooney's character might on occasion have done even the most remotely lawyerly things, to ground his moral journey in something like a real world. The movie acts weathered and lived-in, but it's neither of those things, the actors' showy work notwithstanding. (Tom Wilkinson can do no wrong in my eyes, and those monologues are dynamite, but I got more out of his work as the creepy/loving scientist in the perfect Eternal Sunshine a few years ago.) The only demonstration of legal knowledge in the film comes when Wilkinson rattles off some bit of legalese about involuntary institutionalization deep inside Act Two; it coulda come from a test-prep book for the NYS bar exam. I'm a wannabe writer and even I know this: if you're writing a movie about shady 'legal "fixers,"' a 'backroom' look at lawyers and the law, and the only evidence of the characters' professional identities comes in the form of a fucking monologue halfway through the film, a zinger, then something is wrong with the world of your story.
Perhaps the problem is that there isn't one.
A lot of labour and even love went into Michael Clayton, and several Oscar nominations popped out. Maybe that's enough. Shit, what do I know? The scene with the horses was cool anyhow. Maybe that's enough. Well it was two hours I don't want back, and that's surely enough in this postlapsarian time of ours, Reader(s), so howdy-do to you and you.