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McConaughey gets his day in court

'The Lincoln Lawyer' has entertaining twists and tricks, but the characters really make the movie

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Matthew McConaughey originally made the leap to stardom asan idealistic Southern lawyer in the 1996 adaptation of John Grisham’s “A Timeto Kill.” Fifteen years later, he’s back in the courtroom, playing a slicker,far less idealistic counselor in “The Lincoln Lawyer,” a highly entertainingtale, based on Michael Connelly’s best seller.

Those who dismiss McConaughey as nothing more than agood-looking, constantly smiling and utterly vapid sort tend to do so based onmovies like “Fools’ Gold,” “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” and “Failure toLaunch,” most of which present McConaughey as the male equivalent of JenniferAniston. Dig a bit deeper, however, and there’s surprising versatility inMcConaughey’s back catalogue: the man confessing his family’s horrifyinghistory in “Frailty”; the football coach facing an unimaginable loss in “We AreMarshall”; the unhinged truck driver in “Larger Than Life”; the good-times guruin “Dazed and Confused”; the traumatized district attorney in “ThirteenConversations About One Thing.” If that’s not enough, go all the way back to “TheReturn of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” an absolutely atrocious horror film inwhich McConaughey still manages to deliver a smashing performance that’sferocious 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 TownCar, taking occasional detours on the road to justice. He’s both part of thesystem and an expert at working the system, a knack he sometimes uses tobenefit his clients and often employs to help himself.

Even so, Haller may have to learn a few new tricks when hetakes the case of Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), the well-heeled scion of areal estate family who is accused of brutally beating a hooker (MargaritaLevieva) with an eye for rich guys. Roulet claims he’s been framed, but asHaller and his on-call investigator, Frank Levin (William H. Macy), beginsorting through the evidence, it becomes increasingly clear that neither sideis telling the whole truth.

Although “Lincoln” juggles murder, sleazy goings-on, dirtysecrets and most of the ingredients that make for a crackling (if not always completely convincing) page-turner, itrevolves primarily around Haller, Roulet and the other credibly drawn personalitiesin John Romano’s screenplay. The plot includes enough tricks and twists tosatisfy thriller fans, but more importantly it has characters that don’t merelyseem 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 “streetscum.” While they still have a great deal of affection for each other, at thesame time it’s no mystery why the marriage failed. Haller’s history with Levinis less detailed, yet you can sense the dynamics in their teamwork.

McConaughey’s typically laconic line-delivery is just rightfor Haller, who always sees himself as being a couple of moves ahead ofeveryone else in the game. He’s got charm to spare — but only for those withmoney to burn — and an all-consuming appetite for serving himself first. When aclient is slow coming up with Haller’s fee, Haller announces to the judge thatthe case must be delayed because he’s “having trouble locating an indispensiblewitness — a Mr. Green.”

There’s an increasing amount of character in McConaughey’sface that also works in his favor. He still looks well-groomed enough to bebelievable as a hot-shot L.A. defense attorney, yet he is now weathered enoughto look like someone who’s had more than a few trials of his own outside thecourthouse.

Phillippe’s coldness and air of arrogance rarely worked tohis advantage 10 years ago when he was being touted as the next major leadingman. They do work, however, for Roulet, who is supposed to be slightly aloofand above-it-all. Tomei capably lays out Maggie’s deep-seated conflicts, andJosh Lucas is terrific as Haller’s smart, smooth courtroom adversary.

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