Review: ‘The Lincoln Lawyer’

Will Leitch
J.K. Lawyerin', y'all. Lions Gate Films
J.K. Lawyerin', y'all. Lions Gate Films

1. "The Lincoln Lawyer" is a slack thriller that wants to be a taut one. It feels like it has been a while since we had a good, old-fashioned legal potboiler; maybe John Grisham isn't writing enough books? "The Lincoln Lawyer" is a nod to this, a tick-tock procedural about one specific case and all the people it involves. The problem is that the genre is a bit rusty. This is not a sleek, streamlined courtroom drama. It has too many characters, too many sketchy characterizations, too many obvious plot points. But mostly: It's rambling, unfocused and a little pokey. This is because it takes too many cues from its lead actor. Yet I still kind of liked it. This is an affable little wandering of a movie.

2. Matthew McConaughey plays Mick Haller, yet another idealistic yet opportunistic defense lawyer who knows the difference between right and wrong but mostly just wants to get paid. This is a lawyer straight from central casting; sleazy but not amoral, someone with a backstory that gives him enough faux emotional heft to make us at least tolerate him, if not necessarily like him. The reason he's called the "Lincoln lawyer" is because he has no office; he just works out of the back of his car. This is a pretty flimsy concept to hang a movie on, and director Brad Furman doesn't dwell too much on it; he just gives us a few scenes of a disheveled McConaughey shuffling papers from the back seat and moves along. This is merciful. Otherwise, we'd have an endless number of scenes where characters are like, "Hey, sir, why are you in your car again? And how is your suit so pressed? And where do you keep the hair gel?" The "Lincoln Lawyer" aspect of the film is, I assume, an integral part of the book but completely pointless here. It just gives Haller one little quirk, so the movie isn't just called "Lawyer."

3. Haller ends up taking the case of Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a spoiled rich kid who is accused of attempting to murder a prostitute. Roulet turns out to be Not What He Seems, and as more details of the case reveal themselves, Haller is forced to figure out a way to do his Lawyerly Duties while still saving himself and his family. This is all competently constructed, even if we never get a real feel for Haller's life. Marisa Tomei is his ex-wife, who also works in the prosecutor's office, an entirely perfunctory detail for an entirely perfunctory character; Tomei is in the film for a sex scene, it seems, and to give Haller someone to protect in the final act. Is Haller an alcoholic? Is he damaged? The movie doesn't dig too deep, which is why the whole "Haller's soul at stake" subplot never really registers. He really is just "Lawyer."

4. Fortunately, he's played by McConaughey, whom I haven't enjoyed more in a movie since "Dazed and Confused." Haller is an empty shell of a character, with hackeneyed shadings tossed into make him seem "complicated," but I'll be darned if McConaughey doesn't have a grand time with him anyway. This is the "Surfer, Dude," McConaughey, just sort of cruising on through all this, smilin' and grinnin' and letting you know that, hey, being a lawyer's just part of livin', y'all. There's a brief set of scenes in which Heller is bent on revenge for the death of a friend -- you'll be able to predict this character's death within 30 seconds of him showing up on screen -- and McConaughey is smart enough to know that there's no actor on earth less convincing as "seeker of vengeance" than Matthew McConaughey. So he just messes up his hair, dirties up his shirt, bugs out his eyes, and just runs with it. I'm not sure he's aware of how much fun he is in this movie; he's just keepin' on livin', havin' a good time, today, I'm a lawyer ... that's cool, that's cool. He keeps the film breezing along, tapping into the star wattage he's been idling for about a decade. He's having a good time, and you go along with him, happily ignoring the plot holes and contrivances. J.K. Livin', whatever, it's all good.

5. "The Lincoln Lawyer" is way too long, with way too many characters; Bryan Cranston, Michael Pare, Frances Fisher, Bob Gunton, Josh Lucas and Michael Pena find themselves stuffed into this narrative, one that breezes past them so quickly you can almost catch them waving into the camera. The main story is of moderate interest, though Phillippe doesn't quite have the sadistic depths to truly chew into his role. It's mostly a reminder of better, tighter legal thrillers. Yet I still couldn't help but like it. The movie and its star just emit that vibe, that "hey, you guys, it's a lawyer movie, have fun" and you'll find yourself swept along with it. It moves as a nice pace, is a smooth ride and doesn't require too much energy. Maybe that's what the "Lincoln" part of "The Lincoln Lawyer" is about, after all.

Grade: B-