Given the quality of many American television shows right now, it’s no slight to cinema when something like The Lincoln Lawyer comes on and I say, in the most positive way possible, that it reminded me very much of a double-length episode of a legal procedural drama.
In an altogether more unexpected way, I have to speak highly of Matthew McConaughey.
Yep, that’s Matthew McConaughey, or ‘Mahogany’, as he’s known to those who have a troubled relationship with his permanent and slightly wooden acting in such classics as Two For The Money or Fool’s Gold. He takes a step out of his usual high salary typecast romantic lead in order to play Mick Haller, a lawyer with a slightly unscrupulous attitude.
After being busted for driving under the influence in the months before the film opened, Mick is now chauffeured around LA in his mobile office, a Lincoln Town Car, representing anyone who’ll pay well. With the privilege of attorney-client confidentiality, Mick has no bones about representing guilty clients, just as long as he wins the case. That is, until he is retained by Louis Roulet, a wealthy real estate agent who has been accused of rape and attempted murder by a prostitute.
Louis protests his innocence even to Mick, and Mick, haunted by the last client who swore his innocence and ended up serving life in jail, is ready to believe him. However, Louis isn’t all that he seems, and Mick soon finds himself way out of his depth and entangled in his ethical obligations to his client.
Here’s how it ends up feeling televisual. The supporting cast includes William H. Macy, Marisa Tomei, John Leguizamo, Bryan Cranston, Michael Peña, Michael Paré and Josh Lucas. A few moderately big names in there, but more importantly, a whole lot of talent. Sounds good, right?
The trouble is that they’re all playing characters with little to actually do. The Lincoln Lawyer brings out a procession of incidental characters from the very beginning: the investigator, the secretary, the chauffeur, the prostitute, the grizzled cop, the dedicated cop, the prosecutors, the drug addict, the guardian Hell’s Angels, etc, etc.
And so, casting more well-known actors feels almost like a reflexive move against how televisual it all is. Some of those characters, most notably William H. Macy’s Frank and Marisa Tomei’s Maggie, would be recurring characters if this actually were a TV series, but the others feel like easily interchangeable archetypes who could be encountered every week in something like Law And Order.
In amongst all of this, Ryan Phillippe, an actor for whom I usually have much praise, seems to be on auto-pilot as Roulet. Sure, he’s a nasty piece of work, and he’s doing a decent job of concealing his true nature to the rest of the world, but he’s never really menacing, which could have helped instil some tension when we know the truth about the crime from very early on.
McConaughey has practically admitted himself that he lost out on a bigger salary by doing this film instead of another romantic comedy, but honestly, it pays off for him. It’s the first time I have ever seen him in a role where he didn’t get on my nerves, and it’s a strong indicator of how good he could actually be if he chucks in his status of (un)romantic lead and keeps right on this path.
Indeed, as Haller’s rival prosecutor, Josh Lucas suffers most from McConaughey’s newly discovered talents because I’ve always viewed the two as so interchangeable with one another that the geek in me genuinely became concerned in the scenes where they squared off. Surely, the proximity of the two constitutes some violation of the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, and we’re all going to die?
Our impending doom aside, The Lincoln Lawyer constitutes an entirely serviceable if not unpredictable legal drama. It’s a bit by-numbers, but without any particular inclination towards the genre of courtroom dramas, it held my attention for the full length of its running time. However, it does lose marks for decidedly lacking that cinematic touch from time to time.
Matthew McConaughey’s performance is, against all odds, the most intriguing thing about it, as he muddles through his ethical conflict from the back seat of his Lincoln, which pretty much serves as his Batmobile or his General Lee, if we’re looking at this through the prism of a TV series, and generally being quite impressive in the role.
And really, who knew he could carry off such a muscular performance that has absolutely nothing to do with taking his shirt off?
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