March 18 2013 12:00 AM

'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Matthew McConaughey originally made the leap to stardom as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

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.