Lincoln Lawyer, The (United States, 2011)

March 16, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Lincoln Lawyer, The Poster

SPOILER ALERT: This review reveals a key plot element. Although the movie discloses it within the first 40 minutes, there are those who may not want to know about it. Anyone in that category is cautioned not to read past the second paragraph until after seeing the film.

When making a movie from a popular, 400-page mystery/thriller novel, the success or failure of the film production often relies more upon the quality of the adaptation than any other single factor. Subplots have to be eliminated, character relationships simplified, nuances eviscerated, and pacing quickened. Complex stories don't necessarily have to be "dumbed down," but they must be streamlined to keep audiences engaged. Previously, only one of Michael Connelly's books, Blood Work, has reached the screen, and that was a disappointment (especially considering Clint Eastwood's involvement). This time, significantly more care has been taken to retain the elements that make the novel a page-turner (including chunks of Connelly's dialogue) while keeping the running length reasonable and not drowning the viewer in exposition. The Lincoln Lawyer is an enjoyable piece of pop entertainment - a motion picture thriller with the feel of the numerous John Grisham adaptations that followed one another in a pipeline from book to screen during the 1990s.

In one of his best recent performances (possibly his most convincing since appearing opposite Al Pacino in Two for the Money), Matthew McConaughey plays hotshot lawyer Mick Haller, who tools around town in a Lincoln Town Car and will defend anyone who can pay his fee. When he's called to go to bat for multi-millionaire Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), who is accused of assault and attempted rape, Mick thinks he's the luckiest lawyer in Southern California... until the ugly facts of the case start surfacing due to the diligent efforts of his investigator, Frank Levin (William H. Macy). In fact, the case is anything but cut-and-dry and, despite compelling evidence pointing to Roulet's innocence, assistant D.A. Ted Minton (Josh Lucas) won't drop the charges. It doesn't take long for Mick to discover why.

The Lincoln Lawyer starts as a fairly traditional whodunit mystery before morphing into a thriller that forces an attorney to balance the ethics of his profession against the greater good. We occasionally find movies in which priests, told damning secrets in the confessional, must test their conscience, but it's rare to see this dilemma play out in a legal setting. By the film's one-third point, we know that Roulet is guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt, and not only of this crime but of a more heinous one in the past. Yet Mick's hands are tied - he can't reveal the truth to anyone without violating attorney/client confidentiality. Furthermore, he must do everything within his considerable ability to achieve a "not guilty" verdict for Roulet. Suddenly, the lawyer who cared only about making money is confronted with the darkest imaginable reality, not to mention personal jeopardy.

The court scenes are fascinating not exclusively because they show a brilliant attorney treating the witnesses and jurors like pieces on a chessboard but also because this is a case Mick would dearly love to lose. As he struggles behind-the-scenes to find a way out of the trap Roulet has laid for him, he continues to perform brilliantly on the judge's stage. The ending is a little too convenient but, in the best tradition of mystery thrillers of this sort, it satisfies enough on an emotional level that we're willing to forgive any intellectual, procedural, and logical shortcomings. One suspects a lawyer will be able to nitpick far more effectively than I could. For a layman, the legal representations proclaim a level of verisimilitude that is not present in many productions of this ilk.

With his off-screen antics and his predilection for choosing vapid and unchallenging roles, Matthew McConaughey has established a blemished reputation; it takes a performance like this one to remind viewers that, given the right role and the will to invest himself in it, he can be convincing and compelling. Second billing goes to Marisa Tomei, who's in the film primarily because she has a large role in the book, but her character - Mick's ex and the mother of his daughter - serves little purpose beyond rounding out his personality and providing someone to occasionally spar with. William H. Macy is, as always, delightful, although his screen time is limited. And Ryan Phillippe is disturbingly good as a sociopath.

The reason to see The Lincoln Lawyer is the reason to read the novel: because it's fast-paced and satisfying, and packs in a few twists and turns without straining credulity beyond the breaking point. Director Brad Furman finds the right tone and pace to make the film succeed, and John Romano snips and cuts the source material in a way that brings the best elements to the screen. After seeing the final cut, Connelly purportedly provided his approval. Like the best of the John Grisham screen adaptations, this one holds the viewer's attention beginning to end, and satisfies with the way things are resolved.

Lincoln Lawyer, The (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2011-03-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1