I can imagine what you thought when you first heard about The Lincoln Lawyer. It was probably something along the lines of “Why does Matthew McConaughey still have a career?” or “How long has it been since he’s starred in something that wasn’t a shitty rom-com or some article in a gossip mag?” Those are all perfectly valid questions and I’d have a hard time answering any of them. I was also perfectly willing and able to write off McConaughey as a talentless pretty face who’d overstayed his fifteen minutes of fame. But then the positive reviews for this film came in and I just had to take a look.

The Shirtless One stars as Mick Haller, the eponymous lawyer who’s so constantly moving from case to case that he operates out of a Lincoln sedan. It’s established quite early on that Haller is the best at what he does, though what drives him is a rather fuzzy matter. He approaches every case with cold logic and efficiency, emotionally detached from his clients, so it can’t be because he cares about them. He insists on getting paid extravagant amounts, but he’s not exactly living a life of luxury and he gives out huge bribes where necessary, so the money can’t be it either.

Then comes a scene when Haller talks about some sick murderer who decapitated his victim. The guy got caught, so the DA tried to pin some unsolved murders on him and Haller got the guy off because the extra charges didn’t stick. Yet Haller doesn’t feel angry at himself or at the homicidal maniac he got out of jail: He feels angry at the DA who knowingly tried to prosecute a man for crimes he didn’t commit. That’s when it hit me: Haller is the product of what he perceives as a broken system. He figures that if lawyers can bend rules to put people behind bars, then bending rules to get them off is fair play. More than anything, he’s out to make sure that the only ones sent to prison are those guilty of a crime. And brother, does that come back to bite him.

Early in the film, Haller takes the case of Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillipe), who swears up and down that he was framed for the murder of a young woman. Shocker of shockers, the case turns out to be more complex than initially thought. The whole thing builds up to the end of the first hour, when things really get interesting. I believe William H. Macy’s character put it best when he told Haller: “You put one client in jail for what another client did.” This puts Haller in a real bind, trying to stay one step ahead of his antagonist while trying to set things right, all without breaking client-attorney confidentiality.

It may surprise you to know that McConaughey is really quite good in this film. He manages to effectively convey the character’s constant drive, not to mention his shrewd and untrusting nature. Still, this is Matthew McConaughey, so the role is tempered with a sleazy kind of impudent swagger that works greatly in the character’s favor. I’m sad to say that he does venture dangerously close to stoner territory a few times — mostly during Haller’s scenes of heavy drinking — but the moments are mercifully brief and minor enough that they don’t cause any serious damage. If nothing else, McConaughey very effectively disappeared into this character, and that’s the highest praise I can give him.

His love interest (for lack of a better term) is played by Marisa Tomei, who’s definitely a step up from Kate Hudson in every possible way. Haller’s ex, Maggie, is played with that combination of sexiness and sassiness that only Tomei can do. Given these two approaches to their respective characters, Tomei’s chemistry with McConaughey is very good indeed. These two make it abundantly clear why they’re divorced and why their marriage would never work, but that spark between them is still there and still visible. Of course, it helps that they are both very good parents for their daughter, which also helps to show the audience that Haller isn’t an entirely heartless bastard.

As for Ryan Phillippe… wow. I’m loathe to give too much away in regards to his character, so suffice to say that he nails the role wonderfully.

The rest of the characters, I’m sorry to say, don’t make that much of an impression. They’re all perfectly cast and very well-acted, but the script treats the supporting characters more as tools in a box than people in a city. They exist only to further the plot, created solely for a specific task, conveniently appearing when they’re needed and disappearing without a trace when they’re not. Our lead characters are given such sharp dialogue that the supporting cast looks even less fleshed-out by comparison, especially when they’re played by such actors as John Leguizamo and Lucas Black.

Visually, the film frustrates me. It’s like the crew tried using handheld cameras to make all the talking scenes more visually interesting, but it just isn’t quite enough. The editing has some interesting transitions here and there, but not nearly enough to make the film unique. It’s like Brad Furman had a few different ideas of how to film this story, but didn’t go far enough in any one direction. The end result isn’t even bland so much as it’s confused.

Yet this pales in comparison to my biggest complaint about the film: Its pacing. Up until partway through the second act, it looked like the film was moving along at a good clip. We had some nice investigative work, a few great surprises, several rather shocking twists and even a couple of neat moral dilemmas. But then all of that got the red light as the film shifted to Roulet’s court case. I could literally feel the movie grind to a halt as these characters went over things I already knew about, moving slowly toward a foregone conclusion. It was beautifully acted and nicely written with a couple of nice twists here and there, to be sure, but the fact remains that these scenes were furthering a plot nowhere near as interesting as the one that revealed itself at the one-hour mark.

The court scene’s aftermath is mercifully more interesting, but it builds toward a resolution that seemed extremely rushed. I’ll only say that a character acts very strangely and makes a confession that there was no reason to make. I just didn’t get it.

Nevertheless, The Lincoln Lawyer isn’t a bad movie. The cast is solid, the acting is great and the story is full of great conflicts and twists. Unfortunately, the pacing and the spotty characterization keep me from considering this “must-see” material. Still, I certainly wouldn’t stop anyone inclined to give this a look. If nothing else, this film is certainly noteworthy as evidence that Matthew freakin’ McConaughey actually has some acting talent.