by ED SYMKUS & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & N & lt;/span & ot only is Michael Clayton a classy and stylish film with an innovative approach to pitting good guys against bad guys, it also stands on its own as a two-hour study of George Clooney's ruggedly handsome face.
Clooney plays the title character, of course, and he's introduced right after reaching the lowest of low points: Work isn't going well, personal relationships are worse, some bad people might be after him. It's not till 90 minutes later that the story, after flashing back a few days, comes full circle to explain his desperate situation.
Clayton is, in the lingo of his important law firm, a "fixer." He takes care of white-collar messes by regularly working through the night with a look of grim determination. Yet somehow he always remains calm. A montage of his "typical" day shows his workload -- pacing with ear attached to cell phone, juggling problem case after problem case, finding solutions to them all.
But one of those cases hits home. Arthur (Tom Wilkinson -- could someone please give this guy an Oscar?), a senior litigator at the law firm, has been defending a big chemical company on a major class-action suit for a number years. But Arthur has changed his mind; suddenly, he realizes that the chemical company is as guilty as sin. And he intends to do something about it.
This, naturally, doesn't sit right with the firm's big boss (Sidney Pollack) or the general counsel (Tilda Swinton), both of whom tell Michael to "fix" the situation in his usual way. Reputations -- and scads of money -- are on the line.
Things go bad, then get worse. Some of the story's characters start watching others. Then new watchers are brought in to watch the watchers. Orders are given to "contain" things. Various states of paranoia become commonplace. Before long, the film turns into a top-notch thriller -- not necessarily about who did it, but how and why was it done.
The film's topsy-turvy last reel reinvents many of its characterizations, presenting new facets of people and their circumstances. It has about as great an ending -- one that could easily induce audience cheering -- as you could hope for. Michael Clayton is a rarity: It's a film that you wish wouldn't end.