This week's hot Hollywood couple, Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal, danced briefly but divinely last night at a beyond-posh Toronto Film Festival party co-sponsored by TIME magazine. Across the way in the huge Design Exchange room, once home to the Toronto Stock Exchange, George Clooney stood in a corner, pinned by the admiration of other, less famous swells. If the three eminences had come there to schmooze with a TIME movie critic, they missed their big chance. Even so, they seemed as happy as celebrities ought to be, given their privileged status in our bi-national movie culture.
There are particular demands to a star's job basically, to be photographed looking great while pretending to be other people but it's not exactly coal-mining in West Virginia. So some of them give back to the world that gave them so much; Clooney, whom I'd call the exemplary Hollywood star, has been especially generous in lending his aura to well-chosen issues and charities. The top actors also appear in films that are, in their subject matter and their underdog status in the commercial movie universe, their own worthy causes. That's what brought Reese and Jake and George up to Toronto: to raise awareness of thorny issues, to speak up for movies that make bold statements and, in the process, to get rivers of publicity for their politically and emotionally charged endeavors.
"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Edmund Burke's famous phrase could serve as the text for both Clooney's Michael Clayton and the Witherspoon-Gyllenhaal Rendition. Both are fictionalized exposés: the first of corporate malfeasance, the second of Bush Administration policy in its war on Muslim extremists. At the center of each is a man trapped in a dilemma between doing what is damn well expected of him and risking his livelihood, and maybe his life, by doing the right thing.
FIXING THE FIXER
Clooney did that by not taking a salary on Michael Clayton. The entire film was made for about $20 million, or a top star's salary on a typical movie; but it has the sheen of a picture four times its budget. It also carries the deep distrust of U.S. corporations — except for the movie conglomerates — that has become the badge of Hollywood liberalism. (At the Venice Film Festival, where Michael Clayton played, Clooney got annoyed when he was asked to square the sentiments of this movie with his appearing in commercials sponsored by giant companies. He replied, "I'm not going to apologize to you for trying to make a living once in a while," then turning off the mic and kept muttering. A few moments later he was his genial self again.)
Michael Clayton (Clooney) is a "fixer": a lawyer whose savvy and connections can get his firm's clients out of tight spots. They call him a miracle worker, but he says he's just a janitor, cleaning up other people's messes. But Clayton has no one to fix his own troubles: a heavy debt exacerbated by an addiction to gambling and, lately, to losing. Born into a working-class Irish-American family that also weighs on him, Michael was a policeman before joining the firm. The question the film asks: Is he, at heart, a cop who collars the bad guys, or the lawyer who gets them off?
His latest mop-up job is a toughie. During a deposition of plaintiffs in a corporate malfeasance case his bosses want to be settled quickly, the firm's top litigator, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), has gone nuts, cavorting naked in a parking lot. The most superficial familiarity with The Parallax View and other political-paranoia movies of the 70s or with the crimes of EnRon and other big companies will cue the viewer to expect corporate dirty tricks at the root of Arthur's frayed mental state. The two men will find ruthless adversaries both in the corporation's chief counsel (British actress Tilda Swinton, superbly on-pitch as always) and in their own firm's steely partner (Sydney Pollack, extending his streak of likably slimy plutocrats). The game is dangerous; it may be fatal.
Clooney keeps impressing me by his alternation of frivolous and serious roles, and his apparently effortless ability to make both convincing. He can go from heartthrob to Oscar candidate simply by relaxing his smiling face into a rictus of exhaustion. The frown lines dominate here; Clayton is worn out, and the movie spends a little too much time documenting his dissipation. It's more compelling when it follows the money, and the other clues Edens has sleuthed out about how far a company will go to protect its good name (and its stock price) by suppressing information about the toxic effects of its policies.
Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter (all three Bourne movies) making his directorial debut here, balances character study with thriller elements, while adroitly shifting the plot's sequence of tenses over a four-day period. Whatever lethargy his movie falls into in its early passages, it rouses itself for a finale about which I should say little, except that it's likely to send the audience home happy and satisfied. I guess it's just the contrarian in me that wonders if real corporations are so awful, and the stalwart souls and whistle blowers who work for them so numerous, as they are in the Hollywood films that mean to expose the one and praise the other.