The Lincoln Lawyer ***
Matthew McConaughey is one of those Hollywood actors who seem to have become hopelessly typecast over the years. With films such as The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, Fool’s Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past probably being his most successful releases over the last ten years and, with that, likely showcasing his most prominent leading roles, many could easily come to the impression that all he ever does is romantic comedies.
After all, the romcom leading man is a role McConaughey plays very well and Hollywood just seems to love casting him as the male romantic interest in such films. With such emphasis on romantic comedies, however, it is extremely easy to forget that McConaughey has in fact played many other types of roles in a range of different film and has often proven rather good in them. For instance, there was the 2001 religious theme thriller Frailty, the dark and grimy 2002 dragon movie Reign of Fire, the superbly fun 2005 action adventure Sahara, the 2005 sports gambling drama Two for the Money, the 2006 inspirational football movie We Are Marshall and, of course, his supporting role in 2008’s big budget comedy Tropic Thunder. And now another film can be added to this list – The Lincoln Lawyer. Based on the 2005 novel of the same name by American crime writer Michael Connelly – this being his sixteenth novel and the first one to feature the character Mickey Haller – whose 1998 novel Blood Work was previously brought to the screen in 2002 by Clint Eastwood (in a film which, according to some sources, this film’s events – or the book’s at the very least – apparently take place in the same universe as), McConaughey’s latest sees him tackling the legal drama genre, the role of a lawyer being one that he seems almost perfectly suited for with all the charm and charisma he usually brings to the screen and his smooth talking style certainly being the kind of quality that make for a great and effective lawyer.
On paper, in fact, the part of a lawyer almost seems like a role he was destined to play. For this film he is joined by a rather impressive supporting cast including the likes of Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe, William H. Macy, (the uncannily similar to Mathew McConaughey in appearance) Josh Lucas, John Leguizamo and Michael Peña but the credentials of those behind the camera are somewhat less impressive, director Brad Furman only having one previous credit for a feature length film, the very little seen 2007 crime drama The Take, and screenwriter John Romano’s only previous movie credits being light fare such as lending the story for the 2003 Coen Brothers comedy Intolerable Cruelty and the 2008 Richard Gere/Diane Lane romantic drama Nights in Rodanthe although he has written for a number of TV shows, among them episodes of L.A. Law, Monk and The Beast (the latter of which he was also an executive producer on). Such talent behind the camera suggests a film that may well be extremely light in its storytelling style rather than offering the deeper drama that can make a legal drama truly great but early reviews from the states have been resoundingly positive so does The Lincoln Lawyer manage to stand out from other legal dramas and could it be the film to show the world that Mathew McConaughey really is more than just a romantic lead?
Mickey Haller (Matthew McConaughey) is a young hotshot defence lawyer who doesn’t like to play by the same rules as everyone else. Conducting his business from the backseat of his Lincoln Town Car, chauffeured by former client working off his debt Earl (Laurence Mason), his job sees him mostly representing lowlifes and scumbags who have claimed themselves to be innocent so many times that he is afraid that he might not even be able to tell true innocence even if it is staring him right in the face. His job has virtually destroyed his relationship with his ex-wife Maggie McPherson (Marisa Tomei) who works on the other side of the justice system as a prosecutor and with whom he shares a daughter but Mickey thinks his luck is in when colleague Val Valenzuela (John Leguizamo) gives him the case of Louis Rolet (Ryan Phillippe), the heir to a great fortune who is accused of assaulting young woman Reggie Campo (Margarita Levieva).
The case should be his big break but, despite his new client’s pleas of innocence and the huge payday awaiting him, he can’t shake the feeling that he is being lied to and his investigator friend Frank Levin (William H. Macy) is also quick to point out that something seems wrong. Proceeding with the case regardless, Mickey has his own theories on how to best help his client and he isn’t going to let determined prosecutor Ted Minton (Josh Lucas) get in the way but as he digs deeper and certain uncomfortable truths emerge, his initial suspicions regarding Louis seem to be confirmed. Not only that but, when Mickey discovers that Louis just might be the man behind the murder for which former client Jesus Martinez (Michael Peña) was sent to prison, he finds himself morally challenged between defending his current client who just may be guilty and freeing his former client who it transpires truly is innocent. Now Mickey must decide what is more important to him – defending Louis or freeing Jesus.
The character of Mickey Haller is not your typical high rolling lawyer and with that The Lincoln Lawyer is not your typical legal drama. Working any angle to achieve the result he wants and not even having an office, rather operating out of the back of his Lincoln car which has a licence plate bearing the letters “NT GUILTY”, Mickey is streetwise and smart, two qualities that allow this film to stand apart from many legal dramas where the characters are often very well to do, have swanky offices and only defend cream of the crop clients. The key and perhaps only reason the film truly works is Mathew McConaughey himself. Charming, charismatic, slick and smooth – all qualities that make for a completely convincing turn as a lawyer – every about McConaughey’s performance rings authentic and it also proves thoroughly entertaining seeing how his character does his business, the charm he brings to the role ensuring that we route for him to win even when are extremely dubious about who he is defending and what is true motivation is for defending them.
Additionally, as his character finds himself conflicted and morally challenged, it is actually quite easy to buy into the fact that the character really is afflicted by the decisions he is being faced with, McConaughey allowing us to believe that this is a character who is heavily motivated by money but also has a conscience somewhere within him as well. The other cast members sadly don’t really compare. There is a distinct air of sexual tension between McConaughey and co-star Marisa Tomei but it’s a shame that more isn’t made of the fact that Tomei is playing a prosecutor, her character for the most part seeming to simply serve as a romantic or sexual interest for McConaughey’s lead and William H. Macy is also wasted in a role that turns out to be ultimately disposable.
Out of the supporting cast, only Ryan Phillippe really manages to stand out, keeping us guessing as to whether he really is innocent or guilty for a while but when the truth becomes clear a subtly sinister screen presence taking over. Any failings with regard to the cast are not the fault of the actors but rather the screenplay which saddles them with characters who are not given much development and some of whom barely even figure into the equation. Only Mickey and Louis get developed much and then it is largely a one man show focusing on the former and while there is some very smooth dialogue most of that also goes to Mickey, leaving some of the supporting characters feeling a tad underused. In terms of the plot, while there are a few twists, turns and surprises in store, this film isn’t exactly the most gripping or intense example of legal drama, the solid, if not entirely thoroughly explained – flashback scenes showing events as perceived by both the perpetrator and the victim are a smart touch but ultimately leave us not knowing exactly what went down – storyline occasionally feeling a bit by the numbers and the case that Mickey is working on not being all that interesting. Really this is a film about Mickey Haller himself and in this regard it does at least prove successful, the character being crafted as believable and interesting as well as being a bit different from the many lawyer characters that have come before him.
The other aspect of the film that manages to impress is the visual style. Cinematographer Lukas Ettlin delivers some rather striking visuals, the camerawork generally being very slick and a fair amount of visual finesse being on display. A range of camera angles are shown, including lots of slick close-up shots of Mickey’s Lincoln car – which make the car seem almost as it if it is a character in its own right – and of the characters, and all are very well done, the same also being true of the editing by Jeff McEvoy which is very smooth, sometimes gliding between scenes with effortless ease. So, overall, The Lincoln Lawyer is far from being the most engaging legal drama ever made but it does prove to be perfectly enjoyable to sit through and shows that Mathew McConaughey really does have what it takes to tackle more serious acting roles, so what are you waiting for Hollywood – give him some.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)