It must be a sad day when an actor or filmmaker realises their name has become a punch line. There is nary an article written in the last few years about M. Night Shyamalan’s career that he could pull up and not find a variation of the phrase “shockingly steep decline in quality”. Lindsay Lohan would need to deliver a brutal, devastating performance in some Oscar bait to wipe clean her days of hard-partying from the public consciousness (and the best of luck to her). Nicolas Cage … well, I still love him. As for Matthew McConaughey, his name is not as tarnished as the others, but he’s not far from it. After spending a decade appearing almost exclusively in interminable romantic comedies – often shirtless – he has mutated from a talented, charismatic, twenty-something leading man to an over-the-hill, oddly-tanned, sexual predator in his early forties. He could probably continue starring in films like Failure to Lose A Guy in 10 Days, or Fool’s Gold of Girlfriend’s Past for another five or ten years, and make a tidy living off of it. But what of the true price? In a decade’s time, he could find himself the Mae West of the 2020s: the embodiment of excess; a haggard specter of his former self. The Lincoln Lawyer is McConaughey’s first genuine attempt to escape the chilling path already walked by the ghosts of Hollywood before him. It may not be brilliant, but it’s a lot better than the inevitable alternative: “Matthew McConaughey in Sextette 2025!”
Brad Furman’s The Lincoln Lawyer is based on Michael Connolly’s novel of the same name. It’s a slick, fun courtroom drama (with the expected number of clichés). It is to 12 Angry Men what The Town was to Dog Day Afternoon. The film is elevated by the performances, including that of Mr. McConaughey as criminal defence attorney Mickey Haller. He’s certainly a Matthew McConaughey “type” (slick haired, charmingly arrogant Los Angelean), but we should welcome any baby steps the actor makes towards the advancement of his career.
Haller is a fast-talking and even-faster-thinking lawyer who works out of a Lincoln (although the title of the film would suggest that is a far more prominent plot point than it really is). His ex-wife (Marisa Tomei) is a prosecutor – wonder why they separated? – and his best friend is a private investigator (an amusing, long-haired William H. Macy). He mostly defends hookers and low-level drug dealers, but is promoted to the big leagues when hired by a particularly douchebaggy playboy named Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), who has been accused of viciously attacking a prostitute. Roulet stresses his innocence, and Haller struggles with the concept of actually being responsible for the freedom of someone who doesn’t deserve to go to jail. But when Roulet is revealed to be less innocent than he claims – that’s not a spoiler; imagine the twist of Primal Fear being brought up to the end of the first act – Haller finds himself caught in the first ethical dilemma of his career.
So, nothing groundbreaking, but Furman gets the job done. Although he institutes a couple of groanworthy, CSI-style-colour-drenched flashbacks, he instills in the rest of the film an appropriate, almost-exploitation-lite, griminess. Phillippe, Tomei and Macy turn in really nice supporting performances, as does Margarita Levieva as the battered working girl, Josh Lucas as her lawyer and Michael Peña as one of Haller’s former, unjustly jailed clients. Bryan Cranston – who is so good in Breaking Bad – pretty much looks confused the entire time as a cop on Haller’s case. You can’t win ‘em all. The Lincoln Lawyer is a solid – albeit unremarkable – entry into a genre that has provided us with far worse. As a Matt McConaughey movie, well, it’s one of the best.
The Lincoln Lawyer arrives in Australian cinemas April 1, 2011.