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Michael Clayton (5/10)

by Tony Medley

Words, words, words;

Iím so sick of words.

Show Me; Alan J. Lerner, My Fair Lady

That about sums up how I felt about Michael Clayton. Some people are lucky. I couldnít attend the screening for this because I pulled my Achilles tendon the Sunday before it was scheduled and didnít think I should hobble around the Warner Bros. lot and exacerbate the injury.  So I went to a commercial complex the night after opening night to the 7:00 pm. screening. A friend was attending the 7:50 screening at the same complex. Five minutes before the end of my screening, the entire building was evacuated for an emergency. That meant that my lucky friend only had to sit through about an hour while I was stuck for almost the entire two hours. And they were two excruciating hours, indeed; two hours of words, only some of which made sense.

The titular protagonist, Michael Clayton (George Clooney), is a ďfixerĒ for a big New York law firm that is defending an apparently corrupt corporation in a big class action case. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) is the firmís lead litigator who is psychologically adrift, acting bizarrely, having been videotaped dancing naked, so Michael is dispatched to patch things up. Weíre never sure if Michael is a lawyer, an attorney, or what. But we do know that he is a problem-solver, with troubles of his own as his brother is in hock to the mob and Michael is trying to solve that with his own money, which has run out, due, in part, to his addiction to poker. As per Hollywood Rules, the mob, composed of sociopaths in real life, is shown as benevolent and understanding. But in one of the many plot holes, the question is bound to occur to others, as it did to me; to wit, if Michael canít solve his own problems, why would this huge law firm employ him to solve theirs?

The chemical company defendant has a general counsel from hell, Karen (Tilda Swinton). I was a corporate counsel and have dealt with many General Counsels. One, Bob Lentz of Litton Industries, created the mold that all should follow. He was brilliant, understanding, shrewd, and tough. Another, whose name will be charitably withheld, was, like Karen, in over his head. Since I was an outside counsel to his corporation, I could ignore him and his instructions with impunity, which I did to his great dismay, but to the great benefit of his corporate employer. Others have been in between, in various shades of competence. Karen is incompetent and unsure of herself. I donít think any major corporation would put up with someone as inept and lacking in confidence as she.

Right at the beginning there were almost interminable scenes of Karen preparing her presentation that warned me what was coming. She was even bumbling and unconvincing in front of her mirror. I got the point in the first few moments, but these scenes go on and on and on. Maybe writer-director Tony Gilroy is trying to subtly tell the viewer that this is going to be a long, slow process. I doubt those motivations, though, because, even though this is his directorial debut, he is clearly one of those guys who canít make a movie long enough. His credits include the script for The Bourne Identity (2002), which was the only Bourne film I didnít like. Although, to be fair, he also wrote the second and got co-writer credit on the third, both of which were far superior to the first, but that was due to a change of directors to Paul Greengrass. I doubt if director Gilroy left much film on the cutting room floor, certainly none that contained words (remember, they are all HIS words!).

The story is muddled, but it hits the favorite points of Clooney and producer Mark Cuban, the corruption of both American big business and the legal profession. Attorney Karen is the mother of all white collar villains, but pretty much without any reason for her actions.

In fact, thereís not much reason for anything that happens, and thatís probably due to the ignorance of Gilroy and Cuban and Clooney about how large corporations and the legal profession actually work. This lack of cohesion is exemplified by the stimulus of the film that occurs at the opening when Michael is driving back from one of his ďfixitĒ meetings. For some unexplained reason he detours off the road. Then, again without any reason or explanation, stops and gets out of his car to climb a hill to look at three horses at the top. While there, his car explodes. At that point, the film flashes back to show the preceding four days leading us back to this climactic scene. Why did he detour off the main road? There is no answer, just as there is no answer to many of the charactersí actions throughout the movie.

I donít want to finish without at least one good word. Sydney Pollack, the director (The Firm, Havana, Tootsie, to name just a few) and sometime actor, plays Marty Bach, the senior partner of Michaelís law firm. Unlike most of the filmís other characters, Pollack is not only believable, but the best thing in the film. Maybe the reason why heís such a good director is that he is a very good actor.

Some might see the dark cinematography, the unshaven protagonist who is being pursued by demons, both known and unknown, and the incoherent story-telling as tense. George Clooney fans, mostly female, should love it because heís in almost every scene. As for me, I looked at my watch a lot.

October 7, 2007