These days, George Clooney's presence in a movie, especially as a director or producer, usually means two things: a social conscience and Oscar ambitions. The cinematic equivalent of a so-so airplane read, Michael Clayton summons back the liberal paranoia of '70s movies like Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View. Unfortunately, it doesn't trust its audience the way its influences did: This is the kind of thriller that plays back the events of its opening 10 minutes twice, explaining exactly what its conspirators were doing so that even the least attentive spectator couldn't miss it. The ending, which studies Clooney's face in the back seat of a taxi for several minutes as the credits roll on top, is the only time director Tony Gilroy achieves a genuine sense of mystery.
Michael Clayton (Clooney) specializes in getting the clients of corporate law firm Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen out of trouble. A former criminal prosecutor in debt due to a failed restaurant, Clayton works on the instructions of Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack). The law firm represents the U/North corporation in a massive suit alleging that its pesticide caused cancer. While the case seems to be going well for U/North, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a litigator for Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen, has a nervous breakdown, stripping off his clothes in court and leaving phone messages hinting at dark secrets.
Gilroy, a longtime screenwriter responsible for the first scripts in the Bourne trilogy, shows some promise as a director. Michael Clayton opens with evocative shots of an office building, empty except for its janitors. He shoots Manhattan as a jungle of glass and gray skyscrapers, creating a sterile, glossy look that reeks of money and privilege and contrasting it with the more appealing world of upstate New York. In its first five minutes, Michael Clayton ably sketches out the milieu in which its characters live.
Clooney remains a confident, suave screen presence, but that's not really what Michael Clayton calls for. He's good at depicting Clayton's surface charm but stumbles at suggesting his inner despair. The bad choices Clayton has made feel like a screenwriter's setup. You might laugh when an attorney tells Clayton, "You look like hell"--apart from a few cosmetic smudges under his eyes, Clooney looks as handsome as ever.
Personal charisma isn't always an actor's best quality: It can prevent him from sinking into a role, as it does here. Clooney's presence, both as an actor and executive producer (alongside Steven Soderbergh and Anthony Minghella), undoubtedly helped get Michael Clayton made, but the movie would have been better off with an actor who can convincingly lose his cool and get dirty.