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Michael Clayton

Warner Bros. Pictures, Samuels Media, Castle Rock Entertainment

Review in a Hurry:  The usually dapper George Clooney looks like he didn't sleep at all during the filming of this high-powered legal thriller, giving his role as a harried Manhattan fixer a jagged, weary edge.

The Bigger Picture:  The very rich aren't like you and me; they have lawyers like Michael Clayton (Clooney), a utility player at a giant Manhattan firm who can make problems disappear—except for, naturally, his own. Clayton is about one brief away from burning out, and his finances and personal life are a mess. But he's still the go-to guy when the firm's star attorney (Tom Wilkinson), who's defending a megacorporation from a huge class-action suit, has a crisis of conscience that looks suspiciously like a psychotic break.

Clayton's job is to handle it quickly and quietly, but he's hampered by his own distractions (a burgeoning debt to a loan shark) and a growing unease with his responsibilities—which only worsens as he delves into the murky circumstances surrounding the case and runs afoul of a company lawyer (Tilda Swinton) working at cross-purposes.

Bourne trilogy screenwriter Tony Gilroy makes an auspicious directorial debut here. Michael Clayton is an assured, intelligent thriller, the kind that never depends on clunky exposition and differentiates its heroes and villains only by the choices they make during the film. Every character is already so thoroughly compromised that the plot amounts to a series of defining circumstances and significant choices. By the end, you know exactly who Michael Clayton is—if not who he's going to be.

The 180—a Second Opinion:  If you can't get behind the performances, you're in for a bit of a downer. This is one of those films in which nothing good ever seems to happen to anybody, which makes for fine drama but less of a feel-good Saturday night.