Unlike the vast majority of fast-talking courtroom dramas on the big and small screens, “The Lincoln Lawyer” is a laconic legal thriller, one that eschews the usual formula of high-adrenaline skirmishes before the bench in favor of a slow-burning narrative that keeps both characters and audience on the edge of their pews until the final minutes.
The latest vehicle for Matthew McConaughey, “The Lincoln Lawyer” proves the imperceptibly aging heartthrob may yet be a more versatile actor than his recent spate of romantic leads (“Failure to Launch,” “Fool’s Gold,” “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”) suggests. In “The Lincoln Lawyer,” Mr. McConaughey’s smooth southern drawl is transplanted to the streets of Los Angeles, where he plays the overworked and unflappable defense attorney Mick Haller.
Initially, Haller appears an unscrupulous shark only a few rungs above an ambulance chaser on the legal food chain. His clients, as his prosecutor of an ex-wife played by Marisa Tomei succinctly summarizes, are “dirtbags,” though this may well be an unavoidable side effect of having one’s office in the back of a chauffeured Lincoln. When a bail bondsman buddy hands Haller a case involving a privileged young man pinched in Inglewood for assaulting a prostitute, Haller does not hesitate to take on the client.
The accused is Louis Roulet (played by the consistently creepy Ryan Phillippe) the scion of a prosperous Los Angeles family. A real estate agent by day, Roulet finds himself in an inhospitable and over-crowded dwelling place after accepting a prostitute’s invitation for a rendezvous. Haller manages to extract his client from prison on an astronomical bail and then proceeds to build a winning defense, tracking down security tapes and the prosecution’s discovery files with the help of his investigator Frank Levin, a wild-haired William H. Macy.
All falls apart, though, as Haller begins to suspect Roulet of being less than truthful, pitting attorney against client in an unconventional battle of legal wits. The dynamic between Mr. McConaughey and Mr. Phillippe showcases both actors at their steely best in a standoff that careens toward violence even as they share the defense counsel’s table. The film’s supporting cast excels at being unobtrusive, to the disservice of its many great actors like Mr. Macy and Ms. Tomei, but this allows the focus to remain rightly on the compelling pair of Haller and Roulet.
Where “The Lincoln Lawyer” stalls is in its distillation of the complexities of justice into black and white shades that match the sheen on Haller’s automobile. In the opening scenes of the film, Haller seems a morally ambivalent attorney, content with squeezing drug-dealing biker gangs for springing their brethren from the slammer. After being dragged home drunk by his ex-wife one night during the trial, however, Haller asks her in a rhetorical haze, “Do you know what I’m afraid of now,” and answers himself, “Evil, pure evil.” This moment falls around the halfway point of the film, the point where the story begins taking shortcuts and shortchanging its well-developed protagonists.
By reducing Roulet to an ethical abstract, the film degrades the unique conflict between lawyer and client into one of clichéd absolutes. It is a shame that “The Lincoln Lawyer” decides to peddle tropes and devolves into a series of dei ex machina parading across the stage of the last 20-odd minutes of the film. “The Lincoln Lawyer” should not be blamed, however, for riding out of town on the glutted highway of legal dramas with well-wrapped endings, as it drove down many intriguing and unexpected side streets on its way back to the well-traveled road.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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