Film Review: “The Lincoln Lawyer”

by Jason LeRoy on March 18, 2011

Matthew McConaughey in THE LINCOLN LAWYER. © 2011 - Lionsgate

starring: Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Phillippe, Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy, John Leguizamo, Josh Lucas, Michael Peña, Frances Fisher, Bryan Cranston, Trace Adkins, Katherine Moennig

written by: John Romano (screenplay), Michael Connelly (novel)

directed by: Brad Furman

MPAA: Rated R for some violence, sexual content and language.

Sitting down to watch The Lincoln Lawyer, the second legal thriller to be adapted from a novel by Michael Connelly (his Blood Work was filmed by Clint Eastwood), I was dubious about the ongoing value and relevance of courtroom suspense films. I mean, can we all agree that in a post-Law & Order world, legal procedurals are mainly the domain of television? Unless it’s completely reinventing the genre, there isn’t much an expensive two-hour studio movie about lawyers and crime can do that an hour of L&O can’t (aside from swear). Why bother?

So, for me, The Lincoln Lawyer had to justify its existence in a culture saturated with stories just like it. And, indeed, the crime at the center of the film could have been lifted from countless episodes of SVU: an upscale escort (Margarita Levieva) is brutally raped and assaulted, then accuses Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) of committing the crime. But Roulet comes from an extremely wealthy Beverly Hills family, and his protective society-maven mother (Frances Fisher) will do anything to clear his name.

Enter Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey), a smoothie defense attorney who traffics in the seamy underbelly of LA’s criminal justice system: his world is one of bribes, favors, prostitutes, snitches, and corruption. He is essentially a con man who knows how to guarantee himself the biggest payday from any given case. Naturally, when he is approached to defend Roulet and learns about the family’s considerable wealth, he agrees to represent him. But when he begins to discover unsettling parallels to an earlier case when an allegedly innocent man (Michael Peña, quite powerful in a small supporting role) was convicted for a nearly identical crime that resulted in murder, Haller finds himself in a crisis of conscience.

So does The Lincoln Lawyer earn its place on the big screen? Surprisingly, yes. It is an engaging and well-made legal thriller, with a capable cast and an appealingly gritty visual style. While it appears to take place in the present day, it has the look and feel of a ’70s crime drama, including a funky soundtrack and, of course, the eponymous Lincoln, in which Haller is humorously chauffeured around town by his faithful driver.

It is nice seeing McConaughey once again playing a charming attorney, as in his breakthrough role in A Time To Kill. He brings a good balance of comedy and intensity to the role, and actually manages to keep his shirt on for the entire thing (don’t worry, there are still a few scenes in an undershirt). Phillippe allows himself to be sneering and villainous in a way we haven’t seen since Cruel Intentions. I don’t know why he insists on playing heroes so often; he should play to his natural strengths of looking like a total douche more often. We get solid supporting work from a charmingly befuddled Josh Lucas, a nearly unrecognizable William H. Macy, and a sadly underutilized Bryan Cranston. Also underutilized is the glorious Marisa Tomei, mostly wasted in a throwaway role as Haller’s prosecutor ex-wife.

The Lincoln Lawyer is not especially fresh, and many of its clichés have been done to death. But that is exactly the charm of this film: it is a sly, winking throwback to a bygone era of courtroom thrillers.

RIYL: legal thrillers; the word “underbelly”

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