The Lincoln Lawyer has a terrible title. It also has a terrible poster. Which is unfortunate, because the movie itself is a lot of good old-fashioned fun.
Based on the novel of the same name by crime writer Michael Connelly (adapted here by TV vet John Romano), the film tells the story of Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey), a slick wheelin’-n-dealin’ defense attorney. The title comes from the fact that Mick does all of his dealin’ out of his Lincoln Town Car – though the vehicle never plays much of a role in the film – driven by Earl (Laurence Mason), a former client acting as chauffeur to work off the money he owes Mick. But lest you think this makes Mick seem a bit prickish, at the top of the film Earl asks Mick if he can stay on permanently even after his debt is paid off. See, everyone likes Mick. Even his hot prosecutor ex-wife and babymama, Maggie (Marisa Tomei). As perfectly embodied by McConaughey, Mick is a charming smooth-talker who never who seems to need a moment to stop and ponder anything. It is with this confident speed and swagger that Mick moves into the big money payday case of Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a wealthy young realtor accused of the assault and attempted murder of a prostitute. But as Mick digs into Roulet’s story, he begins to unravel a deeper web of lies and crimes.
I walked into The Lincoln Lawyer with admittedly rock-bottom expectations (again that title, that flaccid poster). But I left with a satisfied smile on my face. The film is not great. It shouldn’t be up for any Oscars next year. But it was a goddamn good time, which is ultimately all I truly ask for from a movie. Sadly, they just don’t make ‘em like The Lincoln Lawyer anymore. In the past decade or so, TV has purloined the legal procedural thriller. The endless array of Law & Order spin-offs and various basic cable shows has poisoned the cinema well. It feels like forever since I’ve seen an ingenuous legal thriller that simply wanted you to have an entertaining ride and not gasp at the weight of its own self-importance. *cough* Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest *cough*
Probably the easiest way to sell the film is with its cast: McConaughey, Phillippe, Tomei, plus William H. Macy, Josh Lucas, Frances Fisher, John Leguizamo, Michael Pena, Bryan Cranston, Bob Gunton, Shea Whigham, and Michael Paré. Oh yeah, Michael fucking Paré! Like Eddie and the Cruisers, Streets of Fire Michael Paré! How’d he get in here? I don’t think I’ve seen that dude in a movie since the 90’s. Though he’s spot-on casting as a surly detective, one of the few people who doesn’t like Mick. But I digress. The cast is of course wonderful on paper, and fortunately used wonderfully in the film too.
Josh Lucas plays the prosecutor in the Louis Roulet case, and it is funny to see him finally paired in a film with McConaughey, given his McConaughey-lite looks and style. (Actually, I’ve always thought that Lucas was trapped somewhere between McConaughey and Cole Hauser.) William H. Macy is great as always – sporting his gross mop of hair from Showtime’s Shameless – as Mick’s evidence gathering buddy. But the two biggest scene-stealers are Boardwalk Empire‘s Shea Whigham and a surprise attack from relative nobody Eric Etebari, both of whom are barely in the film but destroy their scenes on the witness stand. Etebari plays a slimeball investment banker type who had also been with the prostitute Roulet is accused of assaulting, and the man’s performance boarders on absurd comedy in the best ways. And Whigham, as a jailhouse snitch, is truly a marvel to behold. This guy can do so much with so fucking little it is almost breathtaking. He has no killer lines or show-stopping speeches. Yet he utterly owns the portion of the film he is in.
And of course there is McConaughey. I’ve always liked the guy. Much is often made of the “decline” of his career into stupid rom-com’s, but honestly if you look at his filmography he was doing mostly crap from the get-go. The man hasn’t been totally lost to comedy – he was great in Tropic Thunder and his episode of Eastbound & Down. But he certainly hasn’t had a good role in a dramatic film since Frality. The Lincoln Lawyer is the model film for McConaughey’s abilities. His various ill-advised forays into serious drama have shown his limitations as an actor, but the man is oozing with effortless charm and he has an undeniable talent to grab attention on screen. He’s also great at infusing comedy into his deliveries. And he is undeniably the reason The Lincoln Lawyer plays as well as it does, as he smooths over a lot of the inherent silliness that arises in a twisty-turny legal thriller.
Which isn’t to say that the film is horseshit without its star. Director Brad Furman knows what he’s doing. He knows he has a cast worth killing for, and nothing is really required of him other making sure the actors have room to do their thang. Which also isn’t to say he does nothing either. He keeps the film moving with a pace that feels as effortless as McConaughey’s wry smirks, without resorting to showy direction or editing. Most importantly though, Furman knows what the film is; Eric Etebari’s performance signals that. He knows he doesn’t have the script for The Verdict, Twelve Angry Men, or Anatomy of a Murder. He knows that in the grand spectrum of courtroom cinema, The Lincoln Lawyer is significantly closer to My Cousin Vinny than it is to To Kill A Mockingbird. (I like My Cousin Vinny, so that isn’t meant negatively.) The direction things go with Lucas’ character practically unfold like a comedy. And even when the film gets heavy, it never really gets heavy. You always sense that a good time is what it wants. It reminded me a bit of Get Shorty, purely in the sense that it is very light on tension because even when Mick is in serious trouble/danger, he never seems that worried about it. So we’re never that worried about it.
I imagine this lightness will either make or break The Lincoln Lawyer for viewers. Either you will enjoy that it wants to entertain with no meatier aspirations beneath the surface, or you’ll walk away disappointed by what a fluff piece it was. If we got a handful of quality legal thrillers each year, I might agree with the later, but I found the film a breath of fresh air. Either way, it is a pleasant diversion from over-produced asswipe like Battle: LA.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars