There are shades of ‘Erin Brockovich’ in screenwriter Tony Gilroy’s directorial debut: a gorgeous, lovable A-lister (here George Clooney) gets caught up in skulduggery surrounding a massive class action lawsuit brought against a heartless megacorporation. Nor is Gilroy’s technique a million miles from Soderbergh’s, what with its tricksy chronology, fragmented, impressionistic montage and canny use of, er, George Clooney.
Clayton is a stalwart at a prestigious New York legal firm, a go-to man for awkward situations requiring a delicate touch; his private life, meanwhile, is a jumble of divorce, debt and family strife. He’s charged with damage limitation when his close colleague, company legend Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), cracks up six years into his defence of multinational company UNorth’s dodgy weedkiller record. With his boss (Sydney Pollack) distracted by a potential buy-out of the firm and UNorth’s highly strung general counsel (Tilda Swinton) on a hair-trigger, the personal welfare of Arthur and Michael is not a top priority.
This story is not without its formulaic, even clichéd, elements – the fixer who can finesse away everyone’s problems but his own, the corporate lackey redeemed by taking a stand – but its structure is unpredictable and stimulating. Through a cool, muted palette and excellent cast, Gilroy establishes a strong sense of the corporate milieu and its discontents, paying attention to the frail, messy human bodies beneath the power suits. The film also offers a handful of striking coups, including a terrifyingly efficient murder, a bristling climactic confrontation and a final, sombre shot of Clooney in a cab that makes him seem less like Cary Grant in ‘North by Northwest’ than Bob Hoskins in ‘The Long Good Friday’.