There was a time—before his infamous naked bongo-playing, a long run of bad romantic comedies and showing up to the Oscars with a George Hamilton tan—when Matthew McConaughey was a respectable performer. And now, with Brad Furman’s The Lincoln Lawyer, McConaughey is making his bid to once again be taken seriously. And for the most part, he succeeds. It helps that this is a role tailor-made to McConaughey’s personality—vaguely likable, yet smarmy—as the film’s titular protagonist, Mick Haller.
Haller is a smooth-talking defense lawyer with a nose for working the system and hustling everyone around him. He also—as the title suggests—rides around in a black Lincoln sedan with his driver Earl (Laurence Mason, Hackers), who is the Morgan Freeman to McConaughey’s Miss Daisy. The film’s main strength is in its casting, from William H. Macy to Marisa Tomei. Even Ryan Phillippe is good, mainly because he’s shrewdly cast as Louis Roulet, a conniving, privileged, snotty rich kid. Phillippe was born to play conniving, privileged and snotty. The entire point of his character is to be unlikable, and Phillippe—who’s always been innately unlikable—is perfect to the point it feels like they’re stacking the deck.
The film’s plot is another stacked deck, all from the “Chekhov’s gun” school of writing. The gist of the story itself has Haller defending Louis on assault charges. Simple enough, except things are quickly revealed to be not what they seem. We then proceed, reel after reel, as literally every character arc and line of dialogue falls neatly into place. Nothing is wasted, and the film is occasionally clever in its clockwork plotting. But it too often feels forced and contrived—and a bit too convenient. Having never read Michael Connelly’s source novel, I can’t say how accurate an adaptation director Brad Furman’s film is, but I can say that it feels like a piece of best-selling fiction.
This isn’t necessarily a slight, but there’s nothing below the surface of the film, which is heavy on plot and little else. The closest thing we get to characterization is Haller’s struggles with his conscience, as his job regularly involves helping guilty criminals go free. Beyond that, The Lincoln Lawyer is little more than a straightforward crime drama. Luckily, it’s one that’s engaging enough in its twisting, manipulated plotting—a potboiler that’s nevertheless enjoyable. Rated R for some violence, sexual content and language.