Saturday, July 30, 2011
The Lincoln Lawyer
Director: Brad Furman
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillipe, Josh Lucas, John Leguizamo, William H. Macy, Michael Pena, Bryan Cranston
Running Time: 119 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
For whatever reason, Matthew McConaughey really excels at playing lawyers. I know, it's crazy. I don't understand it either, but it fits him. With so many choices he's made in the past decade resulting in disaster, The Lincoln Lawyer is a welcome return to form, positioning him in the type of part that first put him on the map and signaled the arrival of a major star in 1996's A Time To Kill. That I'd have to reach back that far back to find his last successful starring performance isn't good news. He definitely got sidetracked, with many of us asking "What happened?" as he starred in a series of flops, most of them romantic comedies. Despite having screen presence and charisma to burn, he's unfortunately spent the past several years making us wonder what we saw in him in the first place. This movie reminds us what that was and that all needed this entire time was the right vehicle that plays to his strengths. And it turns out that vehicle is a Lincoln Towncar. Getting back down to business again as an actor, he gives maybe his best performance since the '90's in a smart, twisty legal potboiler credible enough to be taken seriously, without losing any of the fun. He's a huge reason it works, but not the only one. The events that go down in this adaptation of Michael Connolly's 2005 novel seem on the surface to be ordinarily basic but this is actually one of the few recent legal thrillers to not only successfully explore the idea of attorney-client privilege, but wring it for maximum tension.
Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller (McConaughey) works out of his Lincoln representing a variety of low level criminals, most of them repeat offenders. Slick, charismatic and used to talking his way out of any jam, he lands the biggest, most high profile case of his career when wealthy Beverly Hills playboy Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillipe) is accused of the brutal beating of prostitute Regina Campo (Margarita Levieva). Backed by his overbearing real estate mogul mother (Frances Fisher), Louis swears he's being set up as Mickey and his private investigator Frank Levin (a hippie looking William H. Macy) digs into the sordid details of the case, trying to make sense of what happened that night at the victim's apartment. Initially starting as a mystery thriller, a major development occurs within the first hour that pushes the story in another direction. It would be a stretch to call it a plot "twist," but let's just say the film doesn't end up at all being about the guilt or innocence of the accused and this isn't a whodunnit. Mickey becomes privy to some information and what he chooses to do or not do with it sets up an intriguing ethical dilemma you don't see depicted often in courtroom dramas. Becoming a pawn in his own client's game, the super slick protagonist who never had a care in the world must negotiate his way out of a legal trap that puts his obligations as an attorney on a collision course with moral responsibility.
The film's title isn't to be taken literally, as most of the action takes place in courtrooms, inside prisons and apartments where crimes are committed and evidence gathered. Mickey does work out of his Lincoln and is driven around L.A., but it's hardly as integral to the plot as the trailers and commercials implied, which is a good thing since that would make it seem like a gimmick. Instead it seems that's just the kind of guy Mickey is: A fly by night D.A. looking for his next big payday until his life and career outlook is flipped upside down by one case. Without giving too much away, John Romano's timely screenplay cleverly incorporates the idea that defense attorneys are often put into situations where they must knowingly send criminals back onto the street to protect the integrity of a sometimes questionable justice system. One of the more interesting points raised is that Mickey can live with himself knowing he helped set a guilty man free, but the idea of an innocent man spending his life behind bars, or worse, facing the death penalty, makes him sick. A lawyer always seems to operate better not knowing whether or not their client did it, or maybe just assume that they did so they can think like the prosecution. But what happens when he really does find out for sure and it isn't the answer he expected? That changes the game completely.
McConaughey is so good at adjusting to the twists and turns the story takes, going from being smooth and in-control in one minute to a frazzled, intense mess the next, specifically in the courtroom scenes where he faces off with Josh Lucas' prosecutor. It may say as much about how we perceive flashy "movie lawyers" than it does about McConaughey's talent, but the fact remains that this is a great performance in a seemingly custom-made role that takes full advantage of his natural charisma and smoothness while also giving him his biggest dramatic challenge in a while. Ryan Phillipe is downright chilling as the accused, doing his best work in years, even if delving into the details of how would probably give too much away. Macy is solid as always as the investigator while Marisa Tomei is saddled with the most uninteresting part in the film as his estranged wife. But the script is smart in how it bothers to make their relationship seem realistically uninteresting and unobtrusive to the central storyline. It doesn't feel thrown in for dramatic effect. It's also a relief to finally have a movie lawyer without a drinking problem or some other unnecessary addiction thrown just in case we didn't get the memo he has to redeem himself. Everything here is focused on the case and McConaughey's performance takes care of the rest.
There are many ways this movie could have gone wrong but director Brad Furman sidesteps many of them in delivering the rare legal thriller that isn't dumb and kind of feels like a throwback to all those John Grisham adaptations from the 90's that managed to be fun, fast-paced but still retained a certain degree of intelligence. Most impressive is that nothing occurs in the film that can't be predicted within its opening minutes but you're still on pins and needles waiting to see how it unfolds. It provides just the right type of old school, audience pleasing entertainment value lacking in most mainstream adult dramas these days, complete with an ending that's suspenseful and ridiculous in the best possible way. Even having not read the novel from which it's based it's difficult to imagine author Michael Connolly and the book's fans could feel let down in any way with the adaptation. But maybe the biggest compliment that can be thrown toward The Lincoln Lawyer and McConaughey is when it ended I still wondered what happens to his character and actually wouldn't mind seeing a sequel.