There's a weary look that never leaves George Clooney's eyes throughout Michael Clayton, the new drama from director Tony Gilroy, who's previously written the Bourne action flicks. Michael Clayton has some heavier talent behind it too: Its producers include Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, and it comes partially from Clooney and Steven Soderbergh's excellent production company, Section Eight. But all that talent and expectation aside, it comes back to those uneasy eyes.
"I'm not a miracle worker. I'm a janitor," Michael Clayton (Clooney) notes, and it's appropriate: A "fixer" for a fancy-pants law firm, Clayton gets called when the firm's clients make a mess. Clandestinely working behind the scenes—massaging connections and blurring wrongs—Clayton cleans up often heinous messes, and by and large, he's okay with it, though a strained family life and financial woes lurk behind him.
Enter an eeeevil corporation called U/North, led by Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton). U/North has been busted for poisoning farmers, and has hired Clayton's law firm for representation. But after heading up U/North's defense, manic-depressive Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) goes crazy—blabbing about how wrong U/North is and stripping to his underwear in the middle of a deposition. It's a big fucking mess. They call the janitor.
As U/North grows increasingly desperate to hush things up, and Clayton's personal problems begin to catch up with him, Michael Clayton heads into thriller territory, complete with plenty of life-and-death decisions and a constant struggle with the slippery ethics of modern law. On paper, it's nothing that we haven't seen before: A stereotypically villainous corporation hurts the little guy; our conflicted protagonist has to figure out what to do. But that's where all those names in the first paragraph come into play: An impressive cast and Gilroy's sharp direction allow the smart, intense Michael Clayton to take a John Grisham-y concept and amp it up. But it's the weary, desperate Clayton who carries the picture, with Clooney's haunted eyes bringing life to a man who—officially, at least—does nothing at all.