This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
George Clooney brings a slick, ruthless force to the title role of "Michael Clayton," playing a fixer for a powerful law firm. He works in the shadows, cleaning up messes, and he is a realist. He tells clients what they don't want to hear. He shoots down their fantasies of "options." One client complains bitterly that he was told Clayton was a miracle worker. "I'm not a miracle worker," Clayton replies. "I'm a janitor."
Clooney looks as if he stepped into the role from the cover of GQ. It's the right look. Conservative suit, tasteful tie, clean shaven, every hair in place (except when things are going wrong, which is often). Drives a leased Mercedes. Divorced, drives his son to school, has him on Saturdays. Has a hidden side to his life. Looks prosperous, but lost his shirt on a failed restaurant and needs $75,000 or bad things might happen. Would certainly have $75,000 if he didn't frequent a high-stakes poker game in a back room in Chinatown. Not much of a personal life.
Clayton works directly with Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), the head of the law firm; it's one of those Pollack performances that embodies authority, masculinity, intelligence and knowing the score. But one of Bach's top partners has just gone berserk, stripping naked in Milwaukee during a deposition hearing and running through a parking lot in the snow. This is Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), who opens the film with a desperate voiceover justifying himself to Michael.
The video of the deposition is not a pretty sight. One of the people watching it in horror is Karen Crowder, the chief legal executive for one of Marty Bach's most important clients, a corporation being sued for poisonous pollution. Crowder is played by Tilda Swinton, who has been working a lot lately because of her sheer excellence; she has the same sleek grooming as Clayton, the power wardrobe, every hair in place. Thinking of Clooney, Pollack, Wilkinson and Swinton, you realize how much this film benefits from its casting. Switch out those four, and the energy and tension might evaporate.