New on DVD: The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

A confession: Matthew McConaughey irritates me in most of his romantic comedy roles. It just looks too easy. He seems to be coasting.

But in The Lincoln Lawyer we get the McConaughey I love.

I guess you could say I like my McConaughey fatally flawed. (His greatest performance? Undoubtedly in Dazed and Confused, in which he plays a twentysomething lothario who hangs with the high school crowd so that he can pick up teenage girls.)

Here McConaughey plays Mick Haller, a character who oozes amoral charismatic and oily self-confidence. Mick dovetails perfectly with the actor’s skill set and dazzling grin.

Mick is a criminal attorney who spends most of his time being chauffeured around Los Angeles in a big black Lincoln. With a cell phone at his fingertips and old case files squirreled away in his modest bungalow, Mick doesn’t need an office. Just the cluttered back seat of his Town Car.

In the first 30 minutes of The Lincoln Lawyer we’re taken on a whirlwind tour of Mick’s world, and it’s the best part of this film. From jail to courthouse, to coffee shops and noisy watering holes, we see this attorney meeting with clients, cops, and courtroom regulars.

Mick only recently regained his license after losing it for some unnamed infraction. This schmoozer isn’t above spinning phony yarns about his efforts in order to gouge the paying customers, or spreading bribes to loosen tongues and open sealed records.

But he does it with such panache and humor that we practically cheer him on. Even his ex-wife, a prosecutor (Marisa Tomei), retains a soft spot for this conniver.

Brad Furman’s film, adapted by John Romano from Michael Connelly’s best-selling novel, follows Mick on a life-changing case. Rich kid Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) has been charged with trying to murder a woman he met in a bar.

Roulet claims he’s being framed, that the “victim” is a prostitute who hopes to extract a big civil judgment against him and his family. The jaded Mick, whose policy it is to assume his clients’ guilt, begins to think this squeaky-clean, sincere young man might actually be innocent.

To further describe The Lincoln Lawyer’s intricate plotting would give away too much. Let’s just say that the lawyer who’s so good at playing the system now finds himself being played. It’s Primal Fear all over again.

The film is an effective enough thriller — not all that original but clever at keeping us diverted and off-balance to heighten its narrative surprises. The main drawback is that once The Lincoln Lawyer turns dark and Mick must scramble to survive, it’s not nearly as much fun as when a carefree McConauaghey was winning us over with his character’s dubious charms.

Director Furman eschews style for a straightforward but well-paced approach, and he has assembled a terrific supporting cast: William H. Macy as Mick’s shaggy investigator, John Leguizamo as a possibly ethics-challenged bail bondsman, Josh Lucas as an assistant DA, and Frances Fisher as Louis’ fiercely protective mother. Even the third-tier roles have been filled with fine thesps like Bryan Cranston, Michael Peña, and Bob Gunton.

A couple of minor players tend to overcook their parts (a bit of courtroom testimony is so sleazy it threatens to derail the whole enterprise), but the film quickly rights itself.

Not a classic, but a welcome diversion.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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