It has been five years since Matthew McConaughey has taken on a serious film role (the last was 2006's disappointing "We Are Marshall
"), and in that time he has become a bit of a punching bag, an exaggerated version of himself better known for taking his shirt off and cavorting on the beach than for being a good actor. In "The Lincoln Lawyer," a courtroom procedural based on the best-selling novel by Michael Connelly, he returns to the same genre that initially put him on the Hollywood A-list in 1996's riveting John Grisham adaptation "A Time to Kill." As reliable as McConaughey is, this film is certainly no "A Time to Kill." Littered with predictably twisty but unsurprising plot beats and several egregiously overdone, artificial directorial embellishments, it more closely resembles a mundane two-hour episode of "Law & Order: Los Angeles."
Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) is a hotshot defense attorney who carries out backdoor deals from his chauffeured Lincoln town car and thinks nothing of working for clients he doesn't necessarily believe are innocent. It is this last little detail that has played a part in ending his relationship with prosecutor Maggie McPherson (Marisa Tomei), whom he shares custody of their young daughter with. When a high-end prostitute named Reggie Campo (Margarita Levieva) is brutally beaten within an inch of her life, entitled playboy Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) becomes the number one suspect. Mick takes on the case, but, with the assistance of investigator friend Frank Levin (William H. Macy), begins to spot an increasing amount of holes in Louis' story. When a damning link is found between Louis and a former murder case he defended, Mick is faced with an ethical dilemma and a client wealthy and powerful enough to destroy him if he makes any wrong moves.
"The Lincoln Lawyer" was written by John Romano (2008's "Nights in Rodanthe
") and directed by Brad Furman (whose only previous effort was 2007's direct-to-DVD "The Take") with a seemingly stringent adherence to Michael Connelly's mass-market crime novel of the same name. The film plays like an inconsequential throwaway. It's not really about anything other than what it's about, low on nuance and thematic depth. The narrative is one that can be seen just about every week on any of the "CSI" or "Law & Order" permutations, from the questioning of the suspect and witnesses, to multiple flashbacks that present two versions of how the crime went down, to the third-act revelations where not everything proves to be as it first seemed. Contrivances are high, too; are we really to believe Mick just happens to notice a connection with a previous victim from a former case based on their similar facial bruising in crime photos? Furthermore, what are the chances that Mick, out of everyone in Los Angeles, was the defense attorney on a different case that coincidentally happened to be committed by the same person?
If the storyline is decidedly trite, then its little details and telepic-like style are what really grow to be irksome. Mick rides around in a car with the personalized license plate "NTGUILTY," and the last time I checked (seconds ago), eight characters is at least one too many in most states, including California. Time and again, characters speak to each other with their faces an inch or two away from each other. Who does that? Every time it occurs, it plays like a bad soap opera. If that weren't enough, there is a particularly bizarre case of Hollywood propaganda thrown awkwardly into the mix when one scene begins with Maggie telling Mick, "I bet you didn't know 3D movies could be so much fun!" The conversation immediately switches topics, rendering this line devoid of any point other than to be a shameless, none-too-subliminal message paving the way for the studio's next unnecessary use of a premium-priced third dimension.
Such a solid cast, so few juicy roles. Matthew McConaughey (2009's "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past
") is at the forefront of nearly every scene as Mick Haller, and he does as fine a job as anyone could, but, because of the dirty way he tends to do business, his character is a tough one to like enough to root for. As ex-flame Maggie McPherson, Marisa Tomei (2010's "Cyrus
") needs to be more discerning about her career choices; for an Oscar-winning, multi-nominated actress of her caliber, she should not be wasting her time in thankless side parts like this one. William H. Macy (2010's "Marmaduke
") does sturdy, underused work as shaggy-haired investigator Frank Levin, while most of the other ensemble members, from John Leguizamo (2011's "Vanishing on 7th Street
") to Bryan Cranston (2010's "Love Ranch
") to Margarita Levieva (2009's "Adventureland
") to Josh Lucas (2010's "Life as We Know It
"), fail to break out from the standard, thinly drawn constraints of the screenplay. Only Ryan Phillippe (2010's "MacGruber
"), returning to the smug, self-satisfied kind of roles of his early, late-'90s career as Louis Roulet, gets a fighting chance to stand out from the crowd. He's excellent, giving shades (if not depth) to his manipulative bad guy.
As the tangled plot of threadbare returns unwraps itself in a climax that turns into four or five climaxes, "The Lincoln Lawyer" braces for a two-hour running time and narrowly misses it by sixty seconds. It is not that the film as a whole is dreadful, just that it is so grindingly ordinary. There is nothing original or thoughtful or visually interesting about it. The actors try, but they basically have no choice but to go through the motions. The courtroom scenes are largely forgettable. Even the car of the title gets but a glorified cameo. Like an attorney who tells you what you want to hear but doesn't deliver, "The Lincoln Lawyer" talks the talk without knowing how to walk the walk.