REVIEW: Matthew McConaughey Greases the Wheels of The Lincoln Lawyer
Matthew McConaughey should always play lawyers. There's something smirky, cocky and untrustworthy about his demeanor -- he slides through every movie like a greased weasel, but in The Lincoln Lawyer, it works. As Mick Haller, a Los Angeles lawyer who does business from the back of his Town Car, the superefficient McConaughey is something of a marvel. Modesty isn't his thing -- he's the hardest-working laid-back man in show-business -- but this time around, at least, his self-assurance by itself is magnetic. McConaughey bills by the minute, but at least he delivers.
Directed by Brad Furman and adapted from Michael Connelly's novel, The Lincoln Lawyer ticks along at a pleasing pace. The plot is standard: Haller is hired by the family of a rich squirt named Richard Roulet, played by a perfectly cast Ryan Phillipe (no one has a more privileged pout). Mom Roulet is played by the magnificently icy Frances Fisher, her devil-woman red hair drawn into a murderous French twist. Her baby has been accused of beating up a prostitute, and she'll spare no expense to get him off the hook. All is not as it immediately appears -- but you already knew that, didn't you? McConaughey is the sun around which a superb group of supporting actors revolves, including William H. Macy as a scruffy-but-sharp private investigator, Marisa Tomei as Haller's no-monkey-business (OK, just a little) ex, and John Leguizamo as an arm-swinging, ball-busting bail bondsman (he has the delicious name Val Valenzuela).
These are all characters you've seen before. But isn't that kind of the point? Aside from the clever touches that come straight from Connelly -- like the idea of a lawyer so low-budget, so street, he doesn't even have an office -- the vague familiarity of The Lincoln Lawyer is the big draw. In the '90s, we suffered from John Grisham overload: Every time you turned around, there was another legal drama coming at you -- The Rainmaker, The Client, The Pelican Brief -- and it was easy to take them for granted, or even to openly dislike them. We didn't realize that an era of 3D blockbusters, often with no human characters -- or scripts -- to speak of, was upon us.
Maybe Furman (who previously made the 2007 heist drama The Take) has felt that way, too. The Lincoln Lawyer comes off as extremely earnest in its intentions, and Furman's approach often pays off. The picture appears to suffer a bit of an identity crisis at the beginning: It's a little too jaunty and swinging, as if Furman were trying to turn Connelly into Elmore Leonard. (Even the opening credits have something of a Jackie Brown vibe -- though it's crucial to note that they're not even one-one-hundredth as brilliant.)
But the picture -- adapted by John Romano, who wrote episodes of Hill Street Blues, as well as the straightforward and satisfying romance Nights in Rodanthe -- finds its groove before long, and it's a darker one. McConaughey breezes through the movie's early scenes as if he were the mayor of his own private universe. He greets Valenzuela with a steady stream of canned patter: "C'mon, baby, talk to me, whaddya got?" He slips into the backseat of that Town Car -- its vanity plate reads "NTGUILTY" -- and, with drawling adeptness, launches into another conversation with his driver, Earl (Laurence Mason). Then the floating office is beset by a gang of Hell's Angel-style bikers. Haller directs Earl to pull over and begins negotiating with the leader, in a way that makes it clear they've done business before. The biker hands him an envelope full of cash, which he barely even glances at but shakes expertly. Biker: "Aren't you going to count it?" Haller: "I just did."
McConaughey is marvelous in these early scenes; he's asking us to revel in his cocksure slipperiness, making us part of the joke instead of its unwilling dupes. He's less surefooted when Furman darkens the mood and he's required to telegraph anger and moral distress: Using his handy autopilot acting controls, he sets his jaw to "rigid" and leaves it there. And it's a shame he doesn't have more scenes with Mason: For a guy who works from his car, Haller spends disappointingly little time in that car. But when he is in it, he and Earl speak in an affable shorthand that's great fun to watch -- they're both surfing the same wavelength.
Furman keeps the drama taut when it needs to be, and loosens the reins easily when it's time to kick back -- he has good control over the movie's rhythms. He exerts less control, unfortunately, over the way it looks. The picture was shot by Lukas Ettlin (also the DP behind the recent Battle: Los Angeles), who delights in lots of floaty, hand-held work, desaturated colors, annoying and lazy auto-zoom effects -- all the coolest techniques of 2007, no expenses spared. The picture is trying too hard to look like something, which has the adverse effect of making it look like nothing.
In fact, the scenes in which Haller, in the backseat, yaks with Earl, in the front seat, are the best in visual terms, maybe because they're so simply shot. From the camera's eye view, we get to see both faces at once as these characters test each other, read each other, click with each other -- it's the visual equivalent of jazz musicians doing call-and-response. The Lincoln Lawyer could use more of that controlled casualness, but in a movie landscape cluttered with dull-witted extravagance, it's refreshingly down-to-earth. Some might call it a guilty pleasure. I just call it NTGUILTY.