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Book Smart 

Two new films require no dumbing down

I've always despised the sexist and demeaning term "chick flick," and I was pleased to see that Susan Sarandon shared my view when I interviewed her years ago. If so-called women's films are dismissed as "chick flicks," she stated, then why aren't so-called men's films dismissed as "dick flicks"?

To me, there are no such things as "chick flicks" (or, for that matter, "dick flicks"). There are only good films, bad films and the ones that fall in between, and provided the viewer isn't a complete Neanderthal, he should be able to separate the cinematic wheat from the chaff no matter what type of audience is being targeted.

The Jane Austen Book Club is an example of the wheat. It's intelligent, entertaining, emotional and amusing. It sports its share of rough passages, but those flaws derive from unfortunate shortcuts taken in the screenplay (or the source material, a novel by Karen Joy Fowler), not from the topic at hand or the fact that most of the principal players are (gasp!) women.

As the title blurts out, The Jane Austen Book Club centers on a group of people who gather to discuss Austen's literary canon. The members consist of Bernadette (Kathy Baker), the self-appointed matriarch of the club; Jocelyn (Maria Bello), who prefers the company of her dogs to any man; Sylvia (Amy Brenneman), whose husband (Jimmy Smits) just left her for another woman (breaking screen stereotypes, he leaves her for an older, not younger, woman); Sylvia's daughter Allegra (Maggie Grace), a lesbian into extreme sports; Prudie (Emily Blunt), a French teacher unhappily married to an inattentive lump (Marc Blucas); and Grigg (Hugh Dancy), who's actually into science fiction novels but joins the group because he's attracted to Jocelyn.

Both the letter and spirit of Austen infiltrate these club members' lives, as they not only apply the author's words to modern living but also note similarities between the novels' characters and their own particular sets of circumstances. All too often, writer-director Robin Swicord (who previously penned the exquisite 1994 adaptation of Little Women) relies on whopping coincidences to move the story along (the setting is Sacramento, which must have a population of roughly 248 since everyone's always running into each other). But in most respects, Swicord follows Austen's template of tracking budding (and confusing) love. And, atypically for a mainstream release, the picture allows many characters the sort of second chance usually not accorded in comparable films. Now that's a novel idea.

Michael Clayton is the sort of movie that Hollywood should be producing on a weekly basis -- but doesn't. In most other eras, it would come across simply as a competent piece of filmmaking, a solid drama doing a yeoman's job of making sure the audience got its admission price's worth of entertainment. It would be part of a studio's uniform front, in much the same way as, for instance, Warner's 1930s crime flicks or MGM's 1950s musicals. In fact, its proper place would seem to be with the paranoia thrillers of the 1970s, a sweaty sub-genre that houses such classics as All the President's Men, The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor.

But appearing in 2007, Michael Clayton is a lonely figure, a deceptively low-key suspenser that trusts its audience to be intrigued by its look at corporate skullduggery. It's a good -- not great -- movie, but given the "Look, Ma, no brains!" attitude of most of its contemporaries, it just might be able to ride its high IQ right into the awards season.

Far easier to follow than its impenetrable trailer would lead one to believe, Michael Clayton plays like Erin Brockovich without the populist appeal -- it centers on the title character (George Clooney), a law firm "fixer" who's always called upon to clean up messy problems for the company's clients. Hating his job but stuck with it due to massive debts and an expensive divorce, Michael finds himself caught in the middle when Arthur Edens (an excellent Tom Wilkinson), Michael's good friend and the firm's best attorney, seemingly goes bonkers and threatens to derail their most important case: defending an agrochemical company against a lawsuit filed by ordinary citizens. Michael's boss (Sydney Pollack) orders him to talk some sense into Arthur, but it turns out that the agrochemical company's chief counsel (Tilda Swinton) is willing to go to more extreme lengths to silence the wayward lawyer.

Tony Gilroy, adapter of the Jason Bourne novels, makes his directorial debut here (as well as writing the script), and it's an assured first effort, almost unfolding more like a soundly constructed novel than a multiplex seat-filler. Almost everything about the movie is muted -- the settings, the exchanges, the emotions -- and this decision gives the story a real-world gravitas that make the odious executive actions seem even more plausible than they already are. Gilroy steadfastly avoids including anything that can be deemed extraneous or overreaching, preferring to rest his faith -- and the picture's fate -- in the hands of his accomplished actors and in the strength of his own script. There are no real surprises in Michael Clayton, just the awareness of a job well done.

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