American journalist and satirist Ambrose Bierce defined a lawyer as someone “skilled in the circumvention of the law” and he presciently wrote this a century before either of our two films hit the theaters and proved him right, at least cinematically. Attorneys skilled in legal short-cuts and moral flexibility give both “Michael Clayton” and “The Rainmaker” their juice. The latest, George Clooney’s star-vehicle “Michael Clayton,” explores corporate greed and the massive law firms that defend these companies, casting him as a legal “janitor” who cleans up problems when things get dirty. In the “The Rainmaker,” Matt Damon got to play the good David-lawyer against the bad-Goliath law firm in the starring role, but it was Danny DeVito’s schemer who got to twist the law despite never having passed the bar. So, today, we put these two legal battles into the ring against each other — separated by ten years — and see which one gets the verdict.
In “Michael Clayton,” Clooney plays the title character attorney for a huge national law firm that serves large corporate interests and wealthy individuals. But he doesn’t practice law; instead he is a “fixer,” a guy who quietly cleans up messes. The movie revolves around the firm’s defense of an agriculture firm that has a pesticide that is poisoning family farmers. It has covered up its knowledge of the truth in a ‘profits over lives’ corporate culture. Firm litigator Arthur Edens (the great Tom Wilkinson), after years of defending these scumbags, has a moral epiphany which the firm sees as a total melt down, and resigns the case in spectacular style. Clooney is sent to quietly retrieve the wayward attorney.
The Defending Champion
Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola from a John Grisham novel, “The Rainmaker” explores corporate malfeasance from the plaintiff’s
perspective with an all-star cast. Matt Damon plays Rudy Baylor, an earnest lad fresh out of law school who is, basically, broke and needs a job. He falls in with Mickey Rourke who is an ambulance chaser and Danny Devito who plays a hustler who never passed the bar and has the great screen name, Deck Shifflet. Deck’s credo is: “A lawyer should fight for his client, refrain from stealing money and try to tell the truth.” Shifflet may bend the rules but he really
does want to stick it to corporations who take advantage of the Average
Joe. Emerging from the low end of the legal spectrum in which small time lawyers chase injury victims, Damon throws in with this motley crew out of financial desperation. The opening scenes are clever and set a nice tone.
“Michael Clayton” is a raging success judging by its critical reception, as was “The Rainmaker” ten years earlier. Part of that goes straight to their leading men — both Clooney and Damon have established themselves as big stars specifically because no matter what film they’re in they usually elevate it by making it so much more watchable.
Going back to “The Rainmaker,” though, a film that starts with great promise eventually dissolves into a self-righteous courtroom drama. Damon represents a boy dying with leukemia who is denied the bone marrow operation he needs to survive by the eveil corporation. The bad guys are really evil- Jon Voight as the smug defense lawyer and Roy Scheider as the even smugger CEO. The movie has no room for grays, everyone is either a saint or a sinner. The directing is static and the movie drags. Damon’s love interest is played by the wonderful Clare Danes. But the only basis for the relationship is that she’s a battered wife who runs to him for help…and she’s really, really cute. This movie, despite all the talent, never rises above the genre. Only Dean Stockwell, as a jaded and cynical judge, plays a character that transcends stereotype.
“Michael Clayton” also starts promisingly, but it gets ever more implausible and loses its credibility. It fails as an expose because, in my experience, law firms simply do not have ‘fixers’ like the mob. Where do these overtly evil legal corporations actually exist? The ones that hire hit men to clean-up witnesses? My best guess is that are about as real as Batman and only half as fun. Worse, these corporate killers come across as incompetent by painstakingly making a murder look like an accident only to employ a car bomb on another threat days later (now that won’t draw attention!).
The ending is a contrived, predictable let down. The movie also fails as a thriller. It is paced slowly. The outcome of the one scene that could have been suspenseful is revealed in the opening scene of the film. By the way, if you want people to think you were burned to death in the car, tossing a driver’s license into it is ridiculous. The movie fails as a character study as Clayton just is not a very interesting guy and his problems (owing money to the mob, hating his job, etc) are not very interesting . Clooney plays him as depressed and defeated until the unsurprising redemption.
The applause at my theatre shows that if you make a self important film from a liberal perspective you will get kudos for insight and intelligence every time. The true frustration of the movie is that there is a fascinating theme buried in the mix: the wrestling with the mid-career realization that you’ve become a party to institutional immorality. Wilkinson’s awakening from his soul-killing job provides him with brilliant monologues from writer-director Tony Gilroy. He is euphoric about escaping the chains of his self-loathing by switching sides. It is a remarkable performance. Tilda Swinton is equally brilliant as the corporation’s general counsel who is tormented by her role in his immorality, but places career advancement over ethics. The movie looks great with cinematographer Robert Elswit using framing and lighting to great effect. The costuming is note perfect and Clooney looks elegant in his suits. There is talent at work here but it is sadly lost in the contrivances of the plot.
Neither of these films really work like they ought to. Both are for audiences who prefer clear choices over moral ambiguity and would rather watch Rocky” than “Raging Bull.” But the characters in Michael Clayton have more dimensions than than the stereotypes that populate the Rainmaker — that makes the characters and the film more interesting — and so the decision on points goes to “Michael Clayton.”Jury dismissed.