The Lincoln Lawyer
Directed by Brad Furman
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Philippe, Marisa Tomei, Josh Lucas, John Leguizamo, Frances Fisher
Adapted from American crime writer Michael Connolly’s popular novel of the same name, “The Lincoln Lawyer” defies expectations as much as it affirms them, swinging pendulously between mediocrity and cheeky appeal. The moment Matthew McConaughey – not the most modest-looking of men, given his hulky physique and fashion-conscious frame – is seen lounging in the back of a five-door saloon, accompanied by a soundtrack of hip-hop tunes recalling the Glory Days of status and power, “The Lincoln Lawyer” feels like it’s going to be the smug, schmoozing low-rent affair hinted at in its trailer. Brad Furman’s film however – much like its principal star – works on challenging our initial perspective of lawyer Mick Haller, whose less-than-dignified esteem and tendency to gain acquittal for notorious criminals has earned him quite a grubby reputation.
In truth, McConaughey looks as if he’s screen-testing for a Gucci commercial in the opening first few scenes, tilting his shades at a variety of angles and doling out his trademark Texan drawl. As the confident Lincoln lawyer he manages to navigate through cases involving a jailed biker and a troubled hooker, before hitting a relative brick wall with case number three: millionaire businessman Louis Roulet (Philippe), who is charged with brutally assaulting an escort girl. Coming up against his District Attorney ex-wife Maggie (Tomei) and shrewd prosecution lawyer Ted Minton (Lucas), Mick learns more information about the night in question, which leads him to re-investigate an old murder case and question the validity of his client’s innocent plea.
What’s tackier? Hiring two actors more accustomed to gossip columns than awards luncheons; or giving your man on trial a moniker that sounds like something only Jackie Collins could have devised? Either way, given the seedy kind of dealings going on in “The Lincoln Lawyer” it actually finds a pretty happy-medium with these seemingly shallow creative decisions, knocking the idea of the law profession as coasting and lavish on the head fairly quickly. The narrative takes on the shape of an admittedly not-very-complex parable, but does so effectively, and without foreshadowing key events too painstakingly in advance, or making its plot twists too abruptly pivotal. One might even call it disarming and thoughtful when dealing with the more ambiguous legal elements – if surely no wiser than a television drama like “The Good Wife.” Even when afforded with three times as much time to flesh out its story, “The Lincoln Lawyer” still feels like it’s breezing by with episodic, plotted execution.
While it reads as trite to tell this particular tale through the eyes of a familiarly troubled male protagonist (both romantically and morally), it works fairly well. We’re used to seeing this kind of flawed ‘hero’ eventually emerge on the cleaner side of ethical dilemma, and McConaughey charts Mick’s journey with more mannered physical drama than say, Cloooney’s corporate turncoat Michael Clayton, but nevertheless punctuates the character’s deep-rooted flaws as much – if not more. While it feels as if “The Lincoln Lawyer” is keen to flaunt Mick’s lack of moralistic fibre too heartily, it’s probably more down to McConaughey finding his feet with the character, as the hang-ups of this TV-pilot framework somewhat fade with the actor’s canny interpretation of the escalation in the film’s second half, where Mick’s control-freak characteristics come back to bite him. It’s also impressive how film and actor alike manage to sustain a limber energy throughout.
Despite its surprising heft as a literary drama, “The Lincoln Lawyer” is still lax and by-the-numbers when addressing Mick’s relationship with Maggie (which, as a plot aside, goes completely nowhere) and doesn’t make enough of John Leguizamo’s role as Mick’s colleague. It’s a bit of a struggle to care much about the outcome of the case, and you sense that the film, whether led by the novel or not, is trying far too hard to push the story into an unnecessary final twist. Brian DePalma’s The Black Dahlia had a similar (albeit far more lastingly dangerous) revelation to elevate it into guilty-pleasure territory, but “Lincoln” leaves us with an abrupt, anti-climactic stab at a ‘surprise’, and a limper, befuddled mystery to exit with.
By no means gritty or even enlightening on a social level, “The Lincoln Lawyer” represents an easy way to stage an age-old fable, and can’t really hide its paperback roots. Whether or not a film should be celebrated for barely avoiding mediocrity is questionable, but McConaughey and Furman manage to fashion success out of selling a relatively unambitious premise well. It genuinely works by overachieving as a middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser, with enough allure as a twisty drama, and a degree of candour at knowing that it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of courtroom thrillers. As ego-centric as its protagonist is, “Lawyer” finds ways to temper its own self-expectation, and for that is commendable – even if it’s inherently indebted to the Nineties and unlikely to be canonised by many.