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Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer

"Is anyone else following this ending? I mean..."

Consider it a John Grisham novel on steroids. Matthew McConaughey is adept at playing lawyers with an evident moral compass that they just choose to ignore. I remember the first time I saw A Time to Kill on television, and I was mostly just interested in seeing Sandra Bullock in something that wasn't a frothy romantic comedy. But, I left the film impressed mostly by McConaughey and his bittersweet performance. Fifteen years later, I'm reminded of why I like him as an actor in the first place. It's not easy to get behind him when he comes out with films like Surfer, Dude or Fool's Gold or Failure to Launch, but in films like Contact or Tropic Thunder, or The Lincoln Lawyer, his considerable skill is put to unreasonable use. He is an actor, first and foremost. Especially when he keeps his shirt on. 

More after the cut--

Mick Haller (McConaughey) is a defense attorney, and a damn good one. We're not keyed in on his record of wins or losses, except for a few important ones, but I can imagine it's somewhere comparable to 50-3. Even the license plate on his Lincoln sedan reads "NTGUILTY", which is either a reminder to Haller himself that he earns an honest living, or just a mantra. He's a drinker, and then some. You can imagine his southern charm being effective not only in the courtroom, but on the women he encounters, too. He's genuine, but even that has its limits. Haller surrounds himself with clients and co-workers; outside of his ex-wife (Marisa Tomei) and his private investigator Frank (William H. Macy), I wonder if he has a true friend? The man's clients consist of murderers, rapists, prostitutes, drug dealers... the type of roster any star defense attorney might have. 

Not on his list of friends, but on his list of people who knows well, is a bail bondsman (an underused John Leguizamo) who connects him to the case of a life-time. A young realtor named Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillipe), has been accused of assault and battery against a young prostitute. Of course, the verdict Haller must aim for is "not guilty". Whether Roulet is guilty or not isn't ever the point, until his case begins to mirror one from several years ago where the wrong man might have been convicted. What's interesting about The Lincoln Lawyer is that the case we've been watching isn't necessarily the point, or plot, of the film - it's the toll it takes on the people involved. 

Good acting makes up for questionable pacing. McConaughey seems perfectly at home in the skin of a skeez-ball, and allows himself to be a vulnerable anti-hero; he's likable in all the wrong ways. Exactly what a character like this calls for, and what he excels at. The supporting cast, with what they're given to do, is uniformly credible; William H. Macy and Michael Pena, as one of Haller's old clients, most notably. Ryan Phillipe gets enough screen time to do his job, but not enough presence to come off as anything entirely menacing when he needs to. He's a good actor, but he couldn't carry his weight. Smaller roles are played by bigger actors, and they should consider hiring Haller for damages - there's no reason for Bryan Cranston or Frances Fischer to merely make cameos in anything, let alone for Marisa Tomei to be so underdeveloped.

I need to point out, though, that one of the best performances comes from a young woman in only two scenes - she's a prostitute arrested for that and possession of cocaine and sent to rehab, played by Katherine Moennig. She plays it like she got acting lessons from Vera Farmiga; definitely an actress to look out for. You can see her in the upcoming Simon Brand thriller Default, or on older episodes of The L Word. Her presence in this film, though, points out something that the director should have been aware of - you don't need recognizable actors to make an impact. They wind up just being distracting. This is one of the few things that took me out of the movie. Decisions like this wind up compromising the pacing of the film and connection to the story; two things that most legal dramas are in dire need of. I will say, however, that even if some of the cast was underused or even misplaced, not one hit a false not. 

I'm wondering if, since this film was a success (rightfully so), the studio will continue the series and make a franchise out of the books. Considering the solidity of this first effort, I'm hoping they do. McConaughey could use another knock-out performance under his belt, and it would certainly give more credibility to director Brad Furman for all of his hard work. After all, he made a crime drama set in LA that didn't make LA seem like a terrible place. Happy movies about LA have a hard enough time doing that without the theme of rape and assault hanging over them. Regardless of that small fact, The Lincoln Lawyer winds up not being just a good movie, but a great set-up for a series I'm eagerly awaiting the next piece to. And that car? Gorgeous.