Matthew McConaughey is extremely likable. When we look back at his most well-known roles—Steve Edison in The Wedding Planner, Ben Barry in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Tripp in Failure to Launch, Connor Mead in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past—it is more than clear that he can play the good-looking, smooth-talking romantic interest that is…well, likable (even if the film isn’t). As he is a member of rom-com royalty, McConaughey’s likability may be one of his best attributes, definitely up there with his willingness to take off his shirt on command. But the actor’s good-looking, smooth-talking ways served him well in his latest film, The Lincoln Lawyer, a crime thriller in which he plays a defense lawyer that is (you guessed it) extremely likable.
The Lincoln Lawyer is only the second feature film for director Brad Furman. However, the film is actually an adaptation of the Michael Connelly novel of the same name. The novel’s bestseller status no doubt helped to attract some big names to the film, including Ryan Phillippe, Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy, John Leguizamo, Josh Lucas, Bryan Cranston, and even country music star Trace Adkins. While performances were strong all around—even Trace was convincing in his role as a tough motorcycle gang leader—the film’s weak conclusion and soap opera-like plot twist ultimately exposed the director’s amateurism.
McConaughey plays Mick Haller, cunning and calculating defense attorney, who spends most of his time working on cases from the backseat of his Lincoln as his chauffeur, Earl, drives him from courtroom to courtroom. For Haller, money trumps justice (he postpones a trial until his client pays him), and his clients’ innocence or guilt is beside the point, as it is far easier to assume that everyone is guilty than to try to sleep at night knowing that an innocent client is behind bars. So when the wealthy Louis Roulet (played by Ryan Phillippe) specifically requests Haller’s services in his assault trial, Haller doesn’t hesitate to sign on, expecting to make a fortune off of the Beverly Hills playboy.
Roulet, who is accused of brutally assaulting a prostitute, appears as the face of innocence at first. This concerns Haller, who is always aware of the dangers an innocent client can pose to a defense lawyer. However, with help from Frank Levin (played by William H. Macy), a former police detective, Haller discovers that Roulet is not only guilty of the assault, but is also responsible for a murder thought to have been committed by one of Haller’s clients years ago. As Frank so succinctly puts it to Haller: “One client is in jail for what your other client did.” Bound by lawyer-client confidentiality, as well as the fear of losing his license to practice law, Haller must come up with a way to make things right, all while still defending Roulet.
The strength of The Lincoln Lawyer is in the story itself, which is at times murder mystery and at others courtroom drama, but always engaging and energetic. Furman does well to emphasize the assumptions we are quick to make about defense lawyers and wealthy Beverly Hills families. This packs the discovery of Roulet’s guilt with even more of a punch, as our assumptions are inverted—the defense lawyer isn’t actually all about money, and the wealthy playboy isn’t being framed for his money. Moreover, Furman avoids the trap of turning The Lincoln Lawyer into a clichéd courtroom drama by distributing the action between the small and bare courtroom, the homes of Frank and Haller, and, of course, the Lincoln town car. That is not to say, however, that the film is free of all clichés, as there are plenty of hackneyed shots of Haller sipping a drink and staring intently into the void.
It would require very little effort to forgive Furman for these flaws, especially when we remember that this is (hopefully) only the beginning of his career. However, the plot twist at the film’s conclusion—don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you—makes The Lincoln Lawyer more fit for daytime television than the big screen. This is where McConaughey’s likability really comes in to play. Would it be possible to sympathize with a slightly slippery defense attorney like Haller if he were played by anyone less charming than McConaughey? I don’t think so, but, like I said, that Matthew McConaughey is just so damn likable.
The Lincoln Lawyer is rated R for some violence, sexual content, and language. It opens in theaters on Marchh 18th.
Directed by Brad Furman; written by John Romano; based on the novel by Michael Connelly; director of photography, Lukas Ettlin; edited by Jeff McEvoy; original music by Cliff Martinez; production designer, Charisse Cardenas; produced by Ted Gidlow, David Kern, Sidney Kimmel, Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg, Scott Steindorff, and Richard S. Wright. Released by Lionsgate; runtime 119 minutes.
With: Matthew McConaughey (Mick Haller), Ryan Phillippe (Louis Roullet), Marisa Tomei (Maggie McPherson), William H. Macy (Frank Levin), and Josh Lucas (Ted Minton).
Review by Melissa Cleary