Monday, March 21, 2011

Movie Review: The Lincoln Lawyer

The Lincoln Lawyer ***
Directed by: Brad Furman.
Written by: John Romano based on the novel by Michael Connelly.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey (Mick Haller), Marisa Tomei (Maggie McPherson), Ryan Phillippe (Louis Roulet), William H. Macy (Frank Levin), Josh Lucas (Ted Minton), John Leguizamo (Val Valenzuela), Michael Peña (Jesus Martinez), Bob Gunton (Cecil Dobbs), Frances Fisher (Mary Windsor), Bryan Cranston (Detective Lankford), Trace Adkins (Eddie Vogel), Laurence Mason (Earl), Margarita Levieva (Reggie Campo), Pell James (Lorna), Shea Whigham (Corliss).

The Lincoln Lawyer opens with my favorite credits sequence of 2011 so far. Old school r&b music plays, as Matthew McConaughey cruises around in his huge Lincoln Town car through the streets of Los Angeles. It immediately called to mind all those great 1970s crime movies, and sets the visual tone that the rest of the movie will follow. Director Brad Furman gives The Lincoln Lawyer an old school visual look that we don’t see very often anymore. Most movies are either of the whip fans, rapid fire editing school or are merely photographed conversations – The Lincoln Lawyer has style. It makes me wonder what Furman could do if he was given some great material – which The Lincoln Lawyer does not. It is based on a Michael Connelly best seller, which like all of his books, is kind of like John Grisham, but not quite as good. But hell, it moves quickly and has numerous twists and turns and is entertaining from start to finish. Which pretty much describes the movie as well.

I must admit that I have never liked Matthew McConaughey. There seems to be a void where his personality should be in pretty much all of his roles. I did like his small role in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) and his breakthrough starring role in A Time to Kill (1996), but other than the odd supporting role or cameo (Frailty, Tropic Thunder), I have had little use for his work in the past 15 years. I’m not sure if it’s because he decided to try this time, instead of just coasting on his charm like he normally does, or if it’s because his character begins the movie has superficial as McConaughey has always seemed to me, only slowly gaining a soul, but The Lincoln Lawyer may just be the best work of his career. He plays Mick Haller, a lawyer, who takes on the lowest of the low in criminal defenses. He doesn’t have an office, but instead is chauffeured around LA in his Lincoln, running from hearing to hearing, and pocketing his fees along the way. He may have no scruples or morals, but he’s good at his job – and as he says, everyone is entitled to a defense.

When he gets the call to represent Louis Roulet (Ryan Philippe), he thinks he has hit pay dirt. Louis is rich – but his family is richer – and has seemingly been caught red handed. He was arrested for allegedly beating and attempting to rape a woman in her apartment – and was caught in the victim’s apartment, with blood on his hands and a knife in his possession. But Louis claims he is innocent – and that the woman, a prostitute, is simply setting him up so she can cash in on a civil suit. He seems convincing – which is even better for Mick. When his clients plead out, he doesn’t get to bill them as much as when they go to trial. But when he starts looking into the case, things get more complicated.

McConaughey is at the center of nearly every scene of The Lincoln Lawyer, and it must be said, he carries it off with ease. Perhaps it’s because of all his previous movies, I’ve seen A Time to Kill most often, but McConaughey seems natural as a lawyer – with his smug façade, charm and confidence to spare, he is pretty much the perfect actor to cast as Mick. And he nails it. One of the things I liked about The Lincoln Lawyer though is how it surrounds Mick with interesting character, played by great actors, even in the smaller roles. Ryan Philippe has the right air of entitlement as the rich kid who has been caught red handed, but claims innocence. You want to believe him, but something is not quite right about him. Marisa Tomei is fine as McConaughey’s ex-wife, and a prosecutor at that, but the movie is smart enough to know that ex-spouses cannot be opposing council at the criminal trial. I loved William H. Macy, with his strange long hair, and sharp tongue as an investigator. Then go down the list of the other characters – Josh Lucas as a cocky, young prosecutor, Frances Fisher as Phillip’s rich mother, John Leguizamo as a sleazy bail bondsman, Michael Pena as a former client of Mick’s, Bob Gunton as a powerful corporate lawyer, Bryan Cranston as a cop, Shea Whigham as a jail house snitch, Pell James as Mick’s assistant, Laurence Mason as his chauffer, Margarita Levieva as the victim and even Trace Adkins as a bike gang leader. Some of these characters only have a scene or two, and yet the feel like real people, fully realized characters, and not just people whose lives end when they not on screen. Most movies don’t bother trying to fill out these small roles, but good ones do.

It’s almost a shame that this cast, with this director who shows off his style, are shoehorned into a plot that leaves credibility far behind almost from the outset. If you’re one of those people who watches Law and Order, and picks apart the legal maneuvering on that show, that don’t bother with The Lincoln Lawyer – it will drive you crazy. Yet, if you like this type of legal thriller, and I do, then The Lincoln Lawyer provides superior entertainment value for its entire running time. No one is going to mistake The Lincoln Lawyer for a great movie – it even pales in comparison to something like Primal Fear (1996), but what is does, it does well.

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