The majority of Matthew McConaughey’s filmography for the last decade could be charitably described as “less-than-good” and uncharitably described as “an abomination”. Even McConaughey seemed unengaged from the material in a way that seemed to say, “Yeah, these movies are crap, but I’ve got a million-dollar smile and unlike most men, I look even hotter when I’m sweaty so the ladies love me. Enjoy Fool’s Gold.” There’s a greasy charm to the majority of his performances and his rom-com “appeal” (I use that term loosely) has overshadowed his genuinely good work in more dramatic films like Lone Star and Frailty.
And yet it’s McConaughey’s smug huckster attitude that elevates The Lincoln Lawyer from a forgettable legal drama to a breezy, exciting thriller that’s ironically only slowed down when McConaughey lessens his bravado to take a swing at the story’s more dramatic beats.
Mick Haller (McConaughey) is a fast-talking defense attorney working out of the back his Lincoln town car. While he may not have an impressive office, Mick knows the legal system and how to wrangle clerks, baliffs, and other functionaries who can make his life easier. One of these functionaries, a friendly bondsman (John Leguizamo), clues Mick into a high-profile case involving a wealthy defendant. Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) stands accused of a serious assault charge against a prostitute. Louis claims he’s being set up and at first, Mick is inclined to believe him. But as Mick and his personal investigator Frank Levin (William H. Macy) do more digging, they discover that their client is far from innocent.
The plot (based on the novel by Michael Connelly) is standard legal drama fare that’s been re-hashed to death on every TV courtroom drama for the past twenty years. Yes, we all wonder how good people like Mick can represent total scum provided we don’t understand that all are equal in the eyes of the law. It’s a shortcut to an easily understandable conflict and The Lincoln Lawyer is at its weakest when Mick has to defend the justice system rather than just his client. Thankfully, the script finds more interesting material by playing into the cat-and-mouse game between Mick and Louis. The problem with most courtroom thrillers is that we can watch them at home for free so a movie has to do something different to justify its existence to audiences. Part of that is getting a strong cast and part of that is finding particulars of the justice system that get overlooked in your standard hour-long legal drama. The Lincoln Lawyer excels at both.
It’s exciting to watch Mick, a lawyer who prides himself on knowing the ins-and-outs of the legal system, become trapped by his own client within those confines as well as more dangerous, extralegal threats on his life and the lives of his loved ones. The film does a great job of establishing Mick as a sharp character. A TV legal drama might mine the frustration of attorney-client privilege to the point of the attorney knowing the client is guilty and being unable to do anything about it (cut to black, home viewer feels sad for five seconds and then watches something else), but The Lincoln Lawyer plays it as a puzzle for Mick to solve and we’re totally on board to watch Mick not only get himself out of danger, but also retaliate against Louis.
When McConaughey gets to play the charismatic and intelligent side of Mick, he absolutely kills at the role. All of the McConaughey mannerisms that I find irritating in his romantic comedies suddenly work in his favor because there’s an intellect behind the cheesiness. However, while McConaughey has shown he can handle more dramatic fare, he never really delivers on that front in this film. It seems that the direction for him when it comes to the script’s weightier material is to talk slower, look tired and sweatier, and the scene will have lower lighting. There aren’t too many of these scenes, but they’re irritating speed bumps for a film that’s mostly well-paced.
McConaughey owns the film, but the majority of the supporting cast is equally terrific. I can’t believe it, but after MacGruber and now this, I’m starting to become a fan of Ryan Phillippe. He holds his own against McConaughey and clearly is having some fun playing the villain without chewing the scenery. While the character is “EVIL” in big, flashing letters, Phillippe plays the smart angle of a psychopath who has to prove to everyone how smart he is. The film is also filled with some great minor roles, especially from Shea Whigham who plays a jailhouse snitch. The only weak link is Marisa Tomei as an assistant DA who’s also Mick’s ex-wife. There’s nothing wrong with her performance, but there’s not much chemistry between her and McConaughey.
Matthew McConaughey’s giant grinning mug on a movie poster is usually a warning sign, but The Lincoln Lawyer finally offers him a character that suits his irascible persona in a way that feels fresh and exciting. Let’s hope it doesn’t take McConaughey another ten years to find a leading role that plays to his strengths.