Overview: Seven nominations -- best picture, director (Tony Gilroy), actor (George Clooney), supporting actor (Tom Wilkinson), supporting actress (Tilda Swinton), original screenplay (Gilroy), music score (James Newton Howard). Discussion, including plot spoilers, after the jump.
Overview continued: Michael Clayton (Clooney) is a "janitor" for a big law firm, a guy who cleans up messes made by clients and by people in the firm. His own life is messy, but he's good at his job. So, when one of those lawyers (Tom Wilkinson) has an apparent breakdown in the middle of a huge case, it's Clayton's job to fix things before the case falls apart. Only that drops Clayton, too, into the middle of the case -- and a mess that may spill back on him.
One part bleak character piece, one part urban paranoia in the tradition of films like "The Parallax View," but not completely faithful to either form. It could be seen as an understated variation on "And Justice for All." "Michael Clayton" is a melancholy journey that can't resist the urge to make Clayton have a heroic moment. I might have been more satisfied with the movie -- which becomes more effective in its second hour after an almost sluggish first -- if it had kept its ending in the spirit of Clayton's potent speech about being a guy who can be bought. But that was probably asking too much.
While it has some good bits, I would not give it a best picture nod ahead of "No Country for Old Men" or "There Will Be Blood," both bravura pieces. And that would indicate some of my preference re writing and directing, since I'm not one of those folks who believes a movie can be the best of the year without also having a best director or writer.
Clooney is a solid actor, and he has some good stuff in "Clayton"; loved the look on his face when he encounters the deadbeat brother he has been seeking. I might put him on a par with best-actor nominee Viggo Mortensen ("Eastern Promises"), but he's not close to Daniel Day-Lewis ("There Will Be Blood"), who is the gold standard among the four best-actor nominees I have seen. (Tommy Lee Jones is the one I need to catch.) For that matter, I would have given Don Cheadle ("Talk to Me") a nomination before Clooney in "Clayton."
Both Wilkinson and Swinton are watchable, but they also give mannered, over-the-top performances that didn't impress me as much as some in their respective categories. Among best supporting actor contenders, I would turn first to Hal Holbrook ("Into the Wild") or Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Charlie Wilson's War") or Javier Bardem ("No Country for Old Men").
I should pause here to note that these are all personal preferences and not some attempt to be an Oscar guru. For instance, I've heard plenty of noise about Bardem being a shoo-in for best supporting actor, but that wouldn't necessarily be my choice; for one thing, you could argue that he's the real leading man in the movie. And Holbrook, a Cleveland guy, was awfully good in "Into the Wild," a movie Oscar mostly overlooked.
Anyway, to Swinton. Her competitors include Amy Ryan, who was fabulous in "Gone Baby Gone" and Cate Blanchett, mesmerizing in "I'm Not There," so Swinton is third chair even before I consider the other nominees (Ruby Dee for "American Gangster" and Saoirse Ronan for "Atonement").
So, as admirable as "Michael Clayton" is in spots, I didn't see it as a big Oscar winner this year. But that, again, is personal preference. The motion picture academy has its own preferences and quirks.