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Clooney makes up for ‘Clayton’ weaknesses

Top-notch acting saves film striving to be character study, paranoid thriller

“Michael Clayton” definitely has its heart in the ’70s. In telling the tale of its titular lawyer, who begins asking himself hard questions about his job as the “janitor,” or fixer, for a prestigious Manhattan law firm after a friend and colleague runs afoul of a giant chemical corporation, it aspires to two of that decade’s prevalent film genres.

It’s a character study in the tradition of, say, “Harry and Tonto” or “A Woman Under the Influence,” but it also wants to be a paranoid thriller along the lines of “The Parallax View” or “Three Days of the Condor.” And while “Michael Clayton” may not always succeed in serving these two ambitions, it’s top-notch acting by a very talented cast — led by an impressive Clooney, but also including Tom Wilkinson and the always-fascinating Tilda Swinton — that makes the whole enterprise work.

The film begins with three unrelated scenes — Clayton (Clooney) playing cards in a back-room Chinatown gambling den; Clayton being called out to Westchester by a vacationing fellow lawyer to do his fixer magic for a rich client who’s just been in a hit-and-run; and Clayton’s car blowing up — before jumping back in time to let us know just how significant these apparent non sequiturs actually are. (Structurally, writer-director Tony Gilroy’s script keeps things snappy, but Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” due out in theaters later this month, does a much better job of giving you scraps of information and then later filling in the blanks.)

Clayton’s current troubles stem from his friend and coworker Arthur (Wilkinson), who stops taking his meds and has a sudden crisis of conscience, or a manic episode, or both. (The film’s brutish lawyers can’t tell the difference, nor do they care to.) Clayton is called upon to contain Arthur, who wants to give very damaging information about the firm’s client uNorth, makers of a fertilizer that turns out to have a deadly effect on humans, to the farmers who are suing the company. And if Clayton can’t stop him, uNorth’s lead counsel Karen Crowder (Swinton) will use methods of her own.

While all this corporate intrigue is unfolding, however, we realize that Clayton has problems of his own, from having taken a financial hit by opening a bar with his unreliable brother to staying close to his son on their infrequent custody visits. But while both storylines are interesting, they don’t mesh with complete success.

“Michael Clayton” gets points for not making its leading man turn into Norma Rae in the last 10 minutes — the closing credits, in fact, are something of a masterpiece in moral ambiguity — but the film does tread dangerously into happy-ending territory, which seems a tad disingenuous. This is the sort of film, after all, where Clayton goes to his boss (played by “Condor” director Sydney Pollack) with evidence about uNorth’s corporate chicanery, only to be rebuffed with, “This case smelled rotten from the get-go. How do you think we pay the rent?” An actual ’70s movie would have taken that level of bleakness all the way to the finish line.