Just what kind of man is Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) in The Lincoln Lawyer that his description invokes another, more famous lawyer named Lincoln? Will Mick, in court, find himself embroiled in civil wars? Will he slip into the balcony of a theatre and encounter a gun aimed at his person? Will he come bearing a straggly beard without a moustache? And even if mercifully dewhiskered, will he, like the American President, come to embody decency and dour rectitude — two qualities fetching in men but fatal in the movies?
Mere minutes into Brad Furman's legal drama, these apprehensions are swept aside by the sight of the eponymous lawyer being chauffeured around LA in his eponymous Lincoln. His office, for all practical purposes, is his car — hence the title. And he's nothing like his namesake. He's so cheerfully, so unapologetically crooked, so prone to getting criminals off the hook, that his licence plates proclaim NTGUILTY, presumably because AMBLNCECHASER wouldn't fit.
Mick is the kind of shyster who knows the bailiffs, the warders, the prisoners, the men on the street — he knows, in short, how to grease the system with greenbacks. He's like the director, who knows a thing or two about keeping the machinery moving, even if the parts are rusty, harking back to the earliest detective novel written or perhaps even earlier.
A shaggy William H Macy, looking like a 1960s rock star gone to seed, plays Paul Drake to McConaughey's Perry Mason. There's a nominal Della Street in McConaughey's secretary, but Marisa Tomei, as Mick's ex-wife who's still on exceedingly good terms with him, could just as easily lay claim to that part. Ryan Phillippe is the rich client who insists that he's innocent till his face is as blue as his blood. And Josh Lucas fills out the cast as the public prosecutor, McConaughey's amiable adversary. If nothing else, The Lincoln Lawyer is Exhibit A in how correct casting can reshape ancient mystery-solving archetypes into living, breathing characters of the present day.
But there's something a little more modern at work here — the liquor-happy hero's fall from grace and his subsequent redemption. The most telling line in the film is when a colleague spits out at Mick, “How does someone like you sleep at night?” A few scenes later, Mick's rest is indeed ruined — if not literally then figuratively, as he is tormented by a crisis of conscience.
Like Paul Newman in The Verdict and George Clooney in Michael Clayton, McConaughey is a fallen phoenix waiting to rise from his ashes, and this trajectory is charted not with the glossy craftsmanship of the John Grisham movie adaptations but in a more rough-hewn style, with every shaky camera move seemingly mirroring the jitters in Mick's moral universe. (The more dapper he is in court, the more dishevelled he turns outside.) Fans of courtroom cinema will enjoy the low-key legal standoffs, which offer the solid, if unremarkable, familiarity of comfort food. But even others, I suspect, will come away feeling that after a lengthy season of Oscar-friendly spinach, this basket of mildly spiced fries is just what the lawyer ordered.
The Lincoln Lawyer
Genre: Legal drama.
Director: Brad Furman.
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe.
Storyline: A shyster grows a conscience when confronted by a cool criminal.
Bottomline: Solid, if unremarkable, entertainment.