George Clooney plays the protagonist of the title, a "clean-up man" at a high-powered New York law firm whose job is apparently to cover the butts of the firm's clients whenever one of them gets into personal trouble.
His latest assignment: hush up one of the firm's own partners, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson, fine as usual), who has gone off his meds and flips out during a hearing in a $2 billion class action suit against a scummy ConAgra-like farming corporation called UNorth. Except that Arthur hasn't just gone crazy: he's been hit by a crisis of conscience, disgusted with defending a coldhearted corporation that may have poisoned hundreds of innocent people.
That Clayton's situation will turn ugly is telegraphed in the first few minutes of the film, where Clayton, during a long drive back to Manhattan from upstate New York, stops off on a country road to look at some horses – and his car explodes behind him. The next ninety minutes trace the four days leading up to that explosion, with the final fifteen or twenty minutes of the film showing us Clayton's reaction.
Although much is ostensibly explained, writer/director Tony Gilroy fails to convince us of many unlikely turns: chiefly, why Clayton would just happen to suddenly get out of his car to look at horses, of all things, and just at the right moment to avoid a car bomb. It's hard not to see this magical coincidence as a bald-faced plot contrivance, one of many in a hole-ridden screenplay. And that is the main problem I have with Michael Clayton, an otherwise intriguing character study of a broken lawyer quietly finding his soul.
The acting is fine (it's Clooney's show, and he pulls off a solid performance), the dialogue is fine, the relationships are fine, the pacing is fine – but the more I think about this film, the more I find wrong with the script. I've read a bunch of defenses from fans of the film, but they all sound desperate. I can't get past the feeling that Gilroy, a veteran screenwriter and first-time director, chose to ignore his plot holes instead of dealing with them logically, but I'm surprised that nobody on the production team stepped in to say, "Wait a minute – why should anybody believe that these things would happen?" I won't even go into the other implausibilities, though one doozy involves a Midwest farm girl's willingness to fly alone to scary New York after being invited by a lunatic who had just chased her across a snowy parking lot with his clothes off. Is anybody really that naive?
I would heartily endorse Michael Clayton if I felt there were worthy answers to all these story gaffes. But as I haven't found any believable ones, I suggest giving this one a miss.