Sunday, March 20, 2011

Review: The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

The Lincoln Lawyer
119 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Oh sweet glorious legal thriller, how I've missed you... In a different time (10-15 years ago), The Lincoln Lawyer would merely be a solid Friday night at the movies. But in this day and age, when the adult-driven genre picture seems to come along only a few times a year, it is indeed cause for celebration. So let us celebrate the real-world settings, the flawed hero, and the crusty character actors doing exquisite character turns. Brad Furman's picture plays like a high-class HBO pilot for the adventures of Los Angeles defense attorney Mick Haller. But if that were true, I would gladly watch each and every episode.

The plot is pretty basic, and I went in pretty blind so I'll try to do you the same favor. Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) is a relatively low-level criminal defense lawyer in LA who operates the majority of his business out of his Lincoln town car. He spends most of his time representing people on drug charges and low-level offenses. But But an apparent favor from a friendly bail-bondsman (John Leguizamo) nets him a more high-class client with the resulting big payday. Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) has been charged with attempted rape and murder of a young woman in her own home. She claims a violent attempted assault, while he claims a set-up for the sake of financial shakedown from the Roulet family fortune. Needless to say, things get a little more complicated more quickly than anyone expects.

And that's all you get, plotwise. Like all good legal thrillers, the core narrative conundrum involves the law itself, with the various protections in the system operating like traps. If the picture has a major flaw, it is that it reveals its cards a little too early. Once the film establishes the stakes, it's merely a waiting game to figure out how Haller will extricate himself from the situation with the least amount of personal and professional damage. Still, there is much fun in playing a game of 'what would I do?', especially if you're someone with a token amount of legal knowledge.

Still, the journey is worth taking if only for the fine acting and sharp plotting. McConaughey shines, as he usually does when the material is up to a certain level. The film earns points for making him a relatively decent guy and not demonizing his profession. Yes, we get the obligatory 'how can you sleep at night?' speech from an angry cop, but Haller's retort is a sound one and the scene slightly pays off later in the narrative. Haller is not presented as an uber-slick, ultra-sleazy defense attorney, but merely a professional lawyer who enjoys what he does and relishes the chance to excel at it. The film drops hints that he may have a drinking problem, but never makes a point about it. Heck, a major character's apparent homosexuality is only referenced by the photos of his boyfriend seen in his home, which is a refreshingly subtle touch. That kind of 'let the audience figure it out if they care' storytelling that makes the picture feel like a truly adult thriller (three cheers for the R-rating).

His relationship with his ex-wife (a DA played with gusto by Marissa Tomei) is refreshingly adult and playful, although the reason they split up ('boo-hoo, you put the bad guys back on the street while I put them away') feels like a narrative cop-out. They have such chemistry as a couple and as parents (they share custody of a young daughter) that you almost wonder just why they actually divorced in the first place. And while it's nice that the film doesn't have them square off in the courtroom for the sake of cheap melodrama (the DA on the case in question is a hilariously incompetent Josh Lucas), the film gives Tomei little to do other than provide exposition and romantic sparks.

The rest of the cast has simply come to play. William H. Macy is a delight as the private investigator, and Ryan Phillippe oozes entitled smarm as the would-be assailant. Bob Gunton gets a few choice moments as the Roulet family 'handler'. Francis Fisher plays the matriarch and Bryan Cranston gets a few fun scenes as a hard-bitten cop who finds himself entangled in the mess. Margarita Levieva does what she can as the would-be victim, but it would be nice if the alleged victim didn't act shocked by the character-assassination-type questions that always get asked in any cross-examination in cases of this sort. Laurence Mason has fun with his role as Haller's chauffeur, and the film gently needles the potential Driving Miss Daisy stereotyping. Michael Pena (who gets one strikingly powerful scene) and John Leguizamo round out the cast, and good lord is it a joy to see a film filled with so many solid character actors.

The only problem comes from Josh Lucas's work as DA Ted Minton. Lucas is fine with what he is given, but the script presents him (accidentally?) as a stunningly incompetent prosecutor. The best legal dramas make a point to present both sides as equally competent and equally intelligent. But Minton is frankly a legal idiot. From not asking obvious questions, not raising reasonable objections, failing to do basic investigative work, and failing to conceal his obvious surprise when a question yields an unexpected answer, Minton is laughably terrible, which hurts some of the second-half drama. Again, that's not Lucas's fault, so I can only blame John Romano (who wrote the screenplay) and/or Michael Connelly (who wrote the original novel).

The Lincoln Lawyer does not re-invent the wheel, nor does it break much genre ground. And its first half is superior to the waiting game of the second half, where even the courtroom combat loses some of its sizzle because we know what's going on under the surface. Still, it is refreshingly adult entertainment in a sea of teen-friendly fantasy pictures. The cast shines with the chance to play real flesh-and-blood characters and the film looks just big-screen enough to justify the trip to the theater (not that it would lose much on DVD, but I digress). Point being, The Lincoln Lawyer indeed sets the bar. Every studio film should be at least this good.

Grade: B+

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