You knew Matthew McConaughey had it in him. After suffering a decade plus of mostly terrible high-concept flicks, McConaughey returns to the type of role that made him a star in the first place, a sleazy, cocksure defense attorney with a gooey center of humanity. The gritty shots, the handheld cameras, and the seedy surroundings are ideal for McConaughey — they are brutal on everyone else in this film (Marisa Tomei, included), but the sweaty close-ups that reveal pores and forehead veins are perfect for McConaughey — it’s his natural surroundings. They highlight both the man’s strengths and his actorly vulnerabilities. It’s like home, and Matthew McConaughey has finally returned to it.
In Brad Furman’s serviceably directed Lincoln Lawyer, McConaughey plays Mick Haller, a seedy defense attorney who works out of his Lincoln Town Car, and who is not above continuing a client’s trial until his fees are paid. There’s some indication that Haller is in it for the money, and he has a few ambulance-chasing tricks to demonstrate that. But he’s also about the justice system — he comes from a line of defense attorneys, and nothing weighs on him heavier than the idea of an innocent client being sent to prison, even if it means returning a murderer back to the streets. It’s his dedication to thugs and felons that cost him his marriage to Maggie McPherson (Marisa Tomei), a prosecutor and still occasional sex partner, with whom he shares a child.
Enter Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillipe), a spoiled rich kid who comes from money and who has been accused of sexually assaulting a prostitute. Roulet maintains his innocence, claiming he was set up by a gold-digging prostitute looking to make hay at the civil trial. Despite the police evidence, Roulet has a convincing story, but there’s something about the kid that just doesn’t sit right, a role also suited well to Phillipe, who has golden-boy handsomeness but the look of a privileged son, someone who feels like the world owes him a goddamn favor.
As Haller and his investigator, Frank Levin (the always brilliant William H. Macy) conduct their investigation, they uncover some evidence that doesn’t do Roulet any favors, but Haller has a client to defend, and by God, that’s what he’s going to do, even as the frame-up jobs multiply, threatening to take down Haller.
To say anything else would be to spoil Lincoln Lawyer, and for those are are into hard-boiled crime fiction, this one does a bang-up job. It’s exactly what you’d expect from Michael Connelly, the novelist behind the movie. There’s no flash or bang, but it’s a neat little story that tidies up the way legal thrillers are meant to tidy up. And as someone who has seen them all, the movies and the television shows, The Lincoln Lawyer presents a twist that even I haven’t seen before. It’s not a gotcha moment, and there are no smoking guns or last minute pieces of evidence, but Haller impressively demonstrates how to eat one’s cake and choke another man with the icing.
That’s not to say, despite all of McConaughey’s sweaty charm, that The Lincoln Lawyer is for everyone. The Academy is not going to be impressed, nor are the fanboys, and the Ellroy fans and the gumshoe enthusiasts might think it lightweight. But for those who thrive on narrative symmetry, who dig on Michael Connelly or Scott Turow, or have a little guilty pleasure in their back pocket for Grisham’s B-movies, The Lincoln Lawyer is an impressive potboiler, an old-style Hollywood movie with equal amounts steak and sizzle. It’s smart and engaging, a greasy plot noodle with some zing, and Furman brings some Memphis-style seaminess to the Hollywood location. It’s populist pablum, but it is terrifically entertaining, a page-turner come to steamy life onscreen.