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In 'Michael Clayton,' a whistle-blower runs for ethical cover

George Clooney sells the role of a corporate 'fixer' who develops a conscience.

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"Michael Clayton" is styled as a throwback to such socially conscious 1970s morality plays as "The China Syndrome" and "The Parallax View." Typically set in the high-end netherworld of corporate politics, these movies center on people whose conscience ultimately short-circuits their drive for power.

That's certainly the case in "Michael Clayton," where the eponymous protagonist, played by George Clooney, is a "fixer" for a big-money New York law firm, Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen. If there is a wealthy client with a scandal that needs to disappear, Michael is summoned. But by the time we are introduced to him, he is worn down from years of being a glorified bag man. A disastrous investment has left him $80,000 in the hole, with a week to pay up before bad things happen.

When the firm's chief defense attorney, the cutthroat Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), suffers a nervous breakdown while taking a deposition in a multibillion-dollar class-action suit brought against their client, the agrochemical giant U/North, Michael is brought in to play janitor. Kenner, Bach and Ledeen is about to merge with a London conglomerate and the bad publicity would torpedo the deal, not to mention the defense.

Screenwriter Tony Gilroy, making his directorial debut, isn't content to tell a simple story simply. (He wrote or co-wrote all of the "Bourne" movies, which were not so much plotted as prodded.) Told mostly in flashback over a period of four frenetic days, "Michael Clayton" has an unnecessarily complicated structure and a surfeit of back stories. It's not enough that Michael once had ambitions to be a crusading trial lawyer. He must also be an up-from-the-working-class, divorced, single dad with a alcoholic brother whose other brother, like his father, is a cop. He must have a gambling habit and be in hock to the bad guys.

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