March 20, 2011
The middle of March is characterized by an eerie quiet in the film industry — the Oscar frenzy is over, and we enter the calm before the storm that a Hollywood summer inevitably becomes. But in a moment like this, there are a certain collection of targeted male-protagonist films that go relatively under the radar, like “Brooklyn’s Finest” and “Green Zone” last year. This year, that void was filled by two releases this past weekend — “Limitless” and “The Lincoln Lawyer.”
In a way, “The Lincoln Lawyer” is the perfect film for this time of year. It’s a crime drama and thriller without the flash and awe that many so-described films tend to devolve into, and its quiet nature is reflected by its focus on the personal development of its macho-smooth protagonist. Therein lies the source of its success — it doesn’t go too far, but stays within reason to illuminate the believable life of a fictional hero.
The charismatic Matthew McConaughey (“Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”) capably embodies the slick Mick Haller, a defense attorney with just as much street cred as experience. He has no office, instead running his business out of his Lincoln towncar. When a biker gang wants to meet with him about one of its own needing legal help, the bikes don’t call him up to set up a meeting. They surround his car, ask him to pull over and talk terms through the open window.
Even though his job is often to represent scum, we’re immediately in love with Haller and the confidence he exudes. We overlook the negatives of his character because we feel like we should, and the film facilitates this by focusing on his insecurity with allowing the innocent to be convicted.
It’s appropriate, then, that the plot ultimately focuses on just that. Rich-boy real estate agent Louis Roulet (Ryan Philippe, “Flags of Our Fathers”) hires Haller to defend him against what appears to be a false rape charge. In investigating the background of the case, Haller finds a more complicated scheme, one involving an old murder case that continues to haunt him. Haller’s immersion into Roulet’s case is matched by the lawyer’s deep delving inside his own identity as a defense attorney, forcing him to decide between the innocent and the guilty while legally bound to the evils of his job.
The exploration is an uncommon one and it’s fascinating to see Hollywood allow such a concept receive the reality and seriousness it deserves. The cast takes it just as seriously, as Marisa Tomei (“Cyrus”) is characteristically delightful as Haller’s prosecutor ex-wife, and supporting characters played by William H. Macy (TV’s “Shameless”) and Laurence Mason (“The Take”) are amiable additions who allow Haller to generate the sympathetic world he needs to convince us of his own validity.
The structure of the film is much like the “Law & Order” courtroom drama formula that allows time for investigation followed by the trial itself. The problem with developing that division into a film is that by the end of the second act and the beginning of the third — when excitement is high — the audience is stuck watching lawyers and witnesses talk rather than act. The jump we need to make is to realize that Haller’s ultimate conflict comes down to a decision in a courtroom, and that, in a moment, his character is revealed by the actions we don’t see, not those we do. The third act isn’t as visually dynamic or invigorating as the first two, but is intellectually the strongest and most satisfying part of the film.
Director Brad Furman (“The Take”) — as a young and largely unproven helmer — controls the variables in his film with grace, and fitfully delivers consistent drama. With a quiet success like “The Lincoln Lawyer” — even if it doesn’t exactly kill at the box office — Furman will likely see plenty of offers coming his way. Despite any comparisons to films released in other parts of the year, “The Lincoln Lawyer” is an illuminating case of a film that does exactly what it means to.
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