Early on in "Michael Clayton," the title character's resume is read out loud by an interested party. Suddenly, it all comes into focus: An attorney at the elite, high-powered New York law firm of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, Clayton (George Clooney) is an outer-borough boy, a graduate of Fordham Law rather than Harvard, the kid who made good from a family of cops. He has been at the company 17 years and never made partner. He's the fixer, the guy other attorneys call when their clients run someone over with their Porsches. In a firm of white-shoe lawyers, he's the one with mud on his wingtips.
Clooney plays the character with the lived-in weariness of a man who knows he has gone as far as he's going to. It's a subtle, watchful performance, but you have to pay attention to it, and to the movie, too. "Michael Clayton" is the directorial debut of screenwriter Tony Gilroy ("The Bourne Identity" and sequels), and it's a writer's film, as the resume gambit described above implies. It also falls squarely and satisfyingly into a long legacy of New York morality plays, specifically those directed by Sidney Lumet. Like "Serpico," "Prince of the City," and "The Verdict" (Boston-set but New York in feel), "Michael Clayton" is a drama of dwindling options in a concrete jungle. When the hero's in-car navigation goes on the fritz, it could be a metaphor for his life.
Kenner, Bach's biggest client is U/North, a chemical corporation fighting a six-year-long lawsuit resulting from a toxic weedkiller the company put on the market. The case is inching toward settlement when the attorney of record, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), goes spectacularly bonkers in a Milwaukee deposition room, stripping off his clothes and shouting that he has blood on his hands.
It's damage-control time. Name partner Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) dispatches Michael to rein in his old friend, while U/North puts its general counsel, a pale-eyed attack dog named Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), on the case. Edens, it turns out, is bipolar and has gone off his meds, and his long rants of complicity and paranoia form the heart of the movie's initial scenes. You can practically hear Gilroy giggling as he crams in all the dialogue he couldn't get into "Armageddon."
Michael takes in this meltdown with patience and sad eyes, wondering where Arthur's briefcase has gotten to, and wondering, too, where his own moral compass went. He's divorced, a good father to his young son (Austin Williams), a good son to his ailing father, a prickly sibling to his brother the police detective (Sean Cullen) and his other brother the cokehead loser (David Lansbury). With the latter he made the mistake of investing in a restaurant that has gone bust, leaving Michael holding the bag for $75,000 he doesn't have. Due by end of week.
That's a lot of character development, and "Michael Clayton" takes its sweet time doling it out. Steadily paced, occasionally lumbering, the movie's for grown-ups willing to settle in and sift the complex chess moves of legal and personal feint and counterfeint. There are thriller elements - a car bombing here, a corporate assassination there - but they're sunk into the muck of daily compromise. At one point, a business negotiation among several of the characters becomes, by degrees, a murder conspiracy, and as it does so the bland MBA dialogue turns both comic and horrifying. Everything is actionable here, and nothing can be said outright.
Gilroy revises the rules of dramatic thrillers in ways that are modest but refreshing. Violence comes when you don't expect it; the usual movie signals that someone is lunchmeat just aren't there. The film's villains are oddly human, too, prone to panic attacks and technological snafus. "Michael Clayton" is about the gap between predatory professionalism and the sins of real life - about how those sins can corrode the hardest business suit of armor.
The energy sags a bit at midpoint, but eventually Gilroy rolls his marbles to the center of the table, and you start appreciating what both Clooney and Swinton are up to. The latter tempers a corporate counsel's arrogance with deep fissures of insecurity; you're always aware of how naked Karen feels in this world of men she has chosen.
Clooney, for his part, allows his movie star looks to go flabby and soft (all things being relative, of course), and he buries the performance way down in his gut. Michael rarely shows his cards because A) he's a lawyer and B) he knows he's considered a day visitor at the country club. "I'm not a miracle worker, I'm a janitor," he says, and as far as he's concerned that's his real resume. Only in the very final frames of this slow, rich, rewarding film does he allow himself the one thing he has earned.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.