'Lincoln Lawyer': McConaughey Sways a Hung Jury
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
The courtroom thriller used to be a staple of big-studio "adult" product, and the genre produced some notable -- some would have said "important" -- pictures over the course of its long heyday, from "Witness for the Prosecution" and "Anatomy of a Murder" in the '50s to "The Verdict" and, God help us, "Jagged Edge" in the '80s. Nowadays, studios don't have much truck with ostensibly adult product -- "Hall Pass" is about middle-aged guys; maybe that counts? -- and television shows such as those in the "Law and Order"' franchise are schooling the viewing public in legalese, and so a once venerable mainstream genre is now the stuff of moderately scrappy almost-indie pictures. "The Lincoln Lawyer," directed by Brad Furman from John Romano's script adapting Michael Connelly's novel, is a pretty decent entertainment on those terms, although it does have a pretty challenging time covering up the fact that the genre hasn't got a whole lot of new tricks in its bag.
The Lincoln of the film's title is not the onetime U.S. president but the in itself venerable gas-guzzling automobile, from the back seat of which not quite shyster Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) does most of his business. This cat is greedy, and slick, and he knows every trick in the legal book. After he pulls a tidy bit of business with a potentially hostile motorcycle gang, Haller's driver Earl admiringly notes, "You woulda done all right on the streets." "Where do you think I am, Earl," Mick drawls back. With his twinkly eye, easy grin and very relaxed delivery, this ruthless but very foxy charmer is the kind of fellow McConaughey was born to play, and the actor makes a hearty meal of the role.
Of course we know that tales of too-slick lawyers involve these characters facing their comeuppances, or potential comeuppances. Mick gets a too-good-to-be-true case handed to him on a plate: A petulant little rich boy named Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe, whose inability to become an actual movie star has given him the power to pretty much phone in "I can't believe this is or isn't happening to me" outraged entitlement) faces assault charges in the brutal beating of a prostitute. He and his family are willing to pay through the nose to ensure he doesn't spend a minute in the pokey. Is Louis guilty? Well. He refers to homosexuals as "faggots" very shortly after his character is introduced, so you tell me.
In any event, soon enough Mick, who likes repeating his lawyer dad's admonition that there's nothing more terrifying than a client who is truly innocent, realizes he's being played, and quite viciously and inextricably at that. The threat of bad things happening to the few people he truly cares about -- his buddy and ace investigator Frank (William H. Macy), his prosecutor ex-wife Maggie (Marisa Tomei) and their young daughter -- forces the opportunistic counselor to, yes, grow something resembling a conscience, and try to fix some mistakes from the past while ensuring that a truly "evil" (yes! Mick finally uses the word at one point!) killer gets what's coming to him.
If you've seen a lot of these pictures, or better still, read a lot of the novels that tend to form the basis for them, the story line will be kind of familiar despite its knottiness. It's the actual construction of the familiar elements that makes a smidgen of difference. Of course, in a compressed medium such as film, you just know, for instance, when a detective makes an offhand taunt to Mick about a rare lost case during an elevator ride, THAT'S the case that's going to be biting Mick in the ass in about 20 minutes. A novel has the expansiveness by which one can slip in that later-to-be-significant detail without tipping one's hand that it's significant; a film, not so much.
It matters little, though, for those who enjoy the genre enough to accept its conventions. What irritates, on the other hand, are director Furman's hyperventilating attempts to jack things up with "intense" camerawork and editing. The furious cutting during a sequence in which a prosecuting attorney played by Josh Lucas seems to be witnessing his case unraveling does not compare well with a similar moment captured in single-shot long take by Otto Preminger in "Anatomy of a Murder." No, Lucas is not George C. Scott, but he's better than competent, and he could have conveyed a memorable character note without the help of Furman's cinematic special pleading. But no. One isn't sure if Furman doesn't trust the material, or just wants to show off a bit. In any event, the effect is one of distraction rather than enhancement.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.