One of the great Hollywood mysteries of the last thirty years is why an actor as incisive as Sydney Pollack directs such lumpen movies. With the exception of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and the marvelous Tootsie (and it is a marvel, considering the monstrous egos of everyone involved and the pay-as-you-go gestation of its script), his movies define middlebrow plod. He wants to be William Wyler when he's more like Edmund Golding. His films get financed because he knows everybody and there's still old-timers who think the lethargy of The Interpreter represents, in the age of comic book adaptations, "classic" Hollywood filmmaking. It's the subtext of the reviews for these movies themselves: the lethargy is a relief, like walking into the TV room of a nursing home after spending the morning at a first grader's birthday party.
Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton's gotten excellent reviews in large part due to George Clooney's furrowed-brow turn as a fixer who can't decide whether to accept the fact that he's got a conscience, and, accepting its limitations (like its misconceived conclusion, despite giving Tilda Swinton a good chance to project that scary open-mouthed blankness she's so good at), it earns its acclaim. Gilroy's isn't a fluid director yet; the first third seems needlessly complicated, hindered by Tom Wilkinson's purploid voice-overs, a scene that has no dramatic payoff, and underwritten expositions. While it's a rare virtue that a Hollywood insider like Gilroy (the adaptor of the Bourne films) trusts the audience enough to figure out who's doing what to whom, he forgets to clarify important relationships until midpoint. Still, the dialogue crackles (not what you'd expect from the adaptator of those Bourne movies) and Gilroy mitigates the material's inherent sentimentality. Clayton isn't a slickster -- unlike, say, John Travolta in A Civil Action or Julia Robert's noble cleavage in Erin Brokovich, he looks as if he's felt like shit for being a shit for years (this film should put to rest the self-perpetuating myth of Clooney's handsomeness). His family means little to him, it's clear; a couple of exchanges between him and his brothers hint at an extinct intimacy. He loves his son, maybe (a scene between them in a parked car after a tense sibling confrontation is the best acting of Clooney's career). He maintains a sliver of self-respect by imagining that he cudda been a contender. Gilroy doesn't spoil it by including honey-hued flashbacks to Clayton's better days -- he didn't have any, as Sydney Pollack reminds him in one scene of quiet but muscular brutality.
Pollack's the ultimate character actor fixer: when you want late middle-aged angst delivered with a touch of Tabasco, he's your go-to guy. His work here is a new crinkle. As Pollack has aged, so have his characters become resigned to their fates. In Tootsie and, in his greatest role, Husbands and Wives, he was a whiz at cutting through crap with jabs and feints; he didn't let his co-stars breathe. In Michael Clayton he's really slowed down. As the mouthpiece for Gilroy's mordant takedown of global plutocracy (right, as if you thought any filmmaker would celebrate it), he says each line thoughtfully, without emphasis -- quite differently than the younger Pollack or even Wilkinson himself would have essayed it; you can understand why this methodical man is the law firm's senior partner while Wilkinson's the feared litigator. When he calls Clayton "soft," he sounds hurt and, of all things, disillusioned, as if the world is so corrupt that it's taught Michael Clayton to become repulsed by corruption. "We always knew this case reeked," he admits, lingering just for a moment on the pronoun -- a subtle way of branding Clayton an outsider, the one who never got it; or it's a gentle reminder that Clayton, in joining the firm fifteen years ago, signed a deal with Satan. It's not a stretch to imagine Clooney like this in fifteen years, when the camaraderie and profits of Ocean's 23 can't assuage the tension between Vanity Fair/GQ playboyhood and his own ideas of what constitutes honest filmmaking and acting.
Now there are unconfirmed rumours that Pollack's got terminal stomach cancer. Best of luck to him.