'The Lincoln Lawyer' has entertaining twists and tricks, but the characters really make the movie
Matthew McConaughey originally made the leap to stardom as an idealistic Southern lawyer in the 1996 adaptation of John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill.” Fifteen years later, he’s back in the courtroom, playing a slicker, far less idealistic counselor in “The Lincoln Lawyer,” a highly entertaining tale, based on Michael Connelly’s best seller.
Those who dismiss McConaughey as nothing more than a good-looking, constantly smiling and utterly vapid sort tend to do so based on movies like “Fools’ Gold,” “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” and “Failure to Launch,” most of which present McConaughey as the male equivalent of Jennifer Aniston. Dig a bit deeper, however, and there’s surprising versatility in McConaughey’s back catalogue: the man confessing his family’s horrifying history in “Frailty”; the football coach facing an unimaginable loss in “We Are Marshall”; the unhinged truck driver in “Larger Than Life”; the good-times guru in “Dazed and Confused”; the traumatized district attorney in “Thirteen Conversations About One Thing.” If that’s not enough, go all the way back to “The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” an absolutely atrocious horror film in which McConaughey still manages to deliver a smashing performance that’s ferocious and extremely funny as well.
Happily, McConaughey is in top form in “Lincoln” as Michael “Mick” Haller, who tools around Los Angeles in a chauffeur-driven Lincoln Town Car, taking occasional detours on the road to justice. He’s both part of the system and an expert at working the system, a knack he sometimes uses to benefit his clients and often employs to help himself.
Even so, Haller may have to learn a few new tricks when he takes the case of Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), the well-heeled scion of a real estate family who is accused of brutally beating a hooker (Margarita Levieva) with an eye for rich guys. Roulet claims he’s been framed, but as Haller and his on-call investigator, Frank Levin (William H. Macy), begin sorting through the evidence, it becomes increasingly clear that neither side is telling the whole truth.
Although “Lincoln” juggles murder, sleazy goings-on, dirty secrets and most of the ingredients that make for a crackling (if not always completely convincing) page-turner, it revolves primarily around Haller, Roulet and the other credibly drawn personalities in John Romano’s screenplay. The plot includes enough tricks and twists to satisfy thriller fans, but more importantly it has characters that don’t merely seem like devices to keep the story perking along.
Haller has an unusual, seesawing relationship with his ex-wife, Maggie (Marisa Tomei), a prosecutor who regards most of his clients as “street scum.” While they still have a great deal of affection for each other, at the same time it’s no mystery why the marriage failed. Haller’s history with Levin is less detailed, yet you can sense the dynamics in their teamwork.
McConaughey’s typically laconic line-delivery is just right for Haller, who always sees himself as being a couple of moves ahead of everyone else in the game. He’s got charm to spare — but only for those with money to burn — and an all-consuming appetite for serving himself first. When a client is slow coming up with Haller’s fee, Haller announces to the judge that the case must be delayed because he’s “having trouble locating an indispensible witness — a Mr. Green.”
There’s an increasing amount of character in McConaughey’s face that also works in his favor. He still looks well-groomed enough to be believable as a hot-shot L.A. defense attorney, yet he is now weathered enough to look like someone who’s had more than a few trials of his own outside the courthouse.
Phillippe’s coldness and air of arrogance rarely worked to his advantage 10 years ago when he was being touted as the next major leading man. They do work, however, for Roulet, who is supposed to be slightly aloof and above-it-all. Tomei capably lays out Maggie’s deep-seated conflicts, and Josh Lucas is terrific as Haller’s smart, smooth courtroom adversary.