Questionable trust is part of the Matthew McConaughey entertainment package. Also, I suppose, a fair amount of arrogance. He surely loves himself, in that overly friendly, even smarmy way that seems immediately disarming. In The Lincoln Lawyer, that man is the life of this film, any of his films. And strange as it may sound, this is McConaughey’s best film in years. And this he accomplished shirted, with nary a hint of abs.
Before seeing The Lincoln Lawyer, ask yourself, how much McConaughey can you stand? One must if undertaking the film’s 119 minutes, because McConaughey is in nearly every frame. (Ask the same question regarding Bradley Cooper in Limitless.) As Mick Haller, he’s an L.A. defense attorney whose unkempt office, at least for two scenes, is the back seat of a chauffeured Lincoln town car – simply a mobile metaphor for Haller’s morality, yet more concretely scenic than a law office set with a giant photo of L.A. beyond the windows.
The Lincoln Lawyer opens with an extensive “walking and talking” tracking shot, often used to heap information on us by establishing location, exposition, and the general pecking order of characters in under a minute. It’s like the main character is saying, “I’m an important person. Things to do. Places to go. And although you are my colleague, I haven’t the time to stop and talk with you in this place where I work. So let’s walk briskly.” Pushy cinematic velocity. What The Lincoln Lawyer lacks in structural neatness, it makes up with energy and verbal repartee, buoyed by McConaughey’s innate “good guy” quality. This world revolves around Haller, and “walking and talking” shots are like crack for a character’s ego. Despite this, I find I usually, though regretfully, end up liking the McConaughey’s self-important characters.
After the initial perception of McConaughey’s ego dissipates, The Lincoln Lawyer develops less on a thematic level (McConaughey as the morally grey inside man minutely balancing travesties of justice for a fistfull of dollars), and more on a narrative one (a lawyer trapped in a legal Catch-22). Winding as the legal roads may be, Haller’s modus operandi is clearly stated: Paraphrasing Haller paraphrasing his deceased, defense attorney father: “I’m not so concerned about my client’s guilt, but if the system messes with my client, that’s where I come in.” So Haller works like justice system spyware. A minuscule lawyerly anti-virus.
Ryan Phillipe is neatly despicable as Louis Roulet, the entitled, preppy, Beverly-Hills-Golf-Club deuchebag who hires Haller. A client who remorselessly admits his guilt. And who, most insidiously, breaks Player Rule #1: Don’t play a player. For this upon him vengeance will certainly be enacted, and with prejudice. Good/bad, right/wrong, may not so much matter to Haller so long as the agreed-upon green crosses his palm. But screw around with Haller’s ego and put an innocent man behind bars, and um, you will pay. But the thing about Phillipe as an actor is, it’s as if he’s in the movie and he’s not. His career may be moving along a Kevin Bacon trajectory: connected to everyone, and yet lacking overall distinction as a lead. His screen life is the supporting player/character actor’s manifesto: be everywhere and nowhere in the eyes of the moviegoer.
The Lincoln Lawyer has a terrific supporting cast, William H. Macy in a Marlowe-ish, aged and laidback ex-surfer dude mode; John Lequizmo as a smarmy ex-con with loose lips; a reserved Josh Lucas as a “not in the know” prosecutor; Bryan Cranston as a bullying detective with a grudge against Haller; Michael Peña, all shaky and nervous and tearing-up scared as Roulet’s patsy; Marisa Tomei as Haller’s amicable ex-wife, an attorney and fellow plier of the legal trade who knows its unspoken code and trivialities; Frances Fisher as Roulet’s mother – the woman has predatory eyes. Snakelike. Who wouldn’t feel uneasy caught in her leer? I swear, if eyes could stab. And then there’s Shea Whigham, whose performance as an amusingly moronic witness for the prosecution – on screen for perhaps five minutes – is a character worthy of his own film.
It’s too early in director Brad Furman’s career to really decipher a particular personal style. However, it can be said he’s inclined to tell L.A. stories with California soul. His first feature, 2005’s The Take starred John Lequizamo as a L.A. armored car driver recuperating from an injurious robbery. And with The Lincoln Lawyer he’s fashioned a film with a West-Coast soul/hip-hop soundtrack that plays like a great mix tape. I loved it. I’ll probably have The Lincoln Lawyer CD on repeat for the next few days. (You must hear the “California Soul Lincoln Lawyer Remix,” despite there being something so very wrong with that title.)
Romantic comedies are not McConaughey’s way. His artificiality works as a lawyer, not a romantic love interest or slacker. His characters in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Failure to Launch are not him, because, much as McConaughey may otherwise assess his acting abilities, he’s still an idealized version of a person we can’t relate to. We can’t relate to McConaughey in The Lincoln Lawyer , and that’s why he succeeds. He’s born to play an untouchable, shifty defense attorney. Note to Mr. McConaughey: if you play an everyone’s-your-buddy ne’er-do-well, you’re inversely out of your league. But if you play the fast-talking, slickly dressed, attorney anti-hero… it’s gold. Not fool’s gold. Just gold. Your agent must know this. So stay up there, snazzy and all. And remember, it’s not always about the abs.