Bottom line: B-
Over the years, the adult crime genre has gotten lost in a sea of action tentpoles and raunchy comedies, but The Lincoln Lawyer, adapted from crime fiction author Michael Connelly’s novel, is a throwback to John Grisham legal dramas from the nineties. Though Lincoln Lawyer would appear to be a breath of fresh air from typical Hollywood fare, the movie never quite reaches the Grisham pedigree to which it aspires.
Following a recent string of romantic comedies, Matthew McConaughey returns to dramatic territory playing Mick Haller, a smooth-talking defense attorney who operates from the back seat of his titular town car. The movie quickly immerses us in his fast-paced lifestyle, as he consults with low-life clients in Los Angeles’ seedy underbelly. Replete with an endless supply of one-liners, he exudes an easy charm in his dealings and operates craftily within the legal system.
Flashy montages of the Lincoln cruising around L.A., set to West coast hip-hop, forebode a fun, stylish thriller, but these pleasures soon give way to a convoluted crime plotline. Enter Ryan Phillippe as Louis Roulet, a Beverly Hills playboy accused (wrongfully, so he claims) of attempted murder. Expecting a large pay-off from the wealthy clientele, Haller takes the case, only to discover there is much more going on behind Roulet’s wooden expression (and Phillippe’s wooden acting).
A clunky narrative begins to unfold, revealing that Roulet’s crime may be linked to an unsolved case from Haller’s past. Adapting Connelly’s novel may have proved too great a challenge for writer John Romano, as every walk-and-talk dialogue sequence seems crammed with backstory and plot information. The first half of the movie weaves in and out of flashbacks, rivaling an episode of CSI for crime reenactment sequences. Though the fast pace occasionally works to the movie’s advantage, the storytelling often feels rushed and bogged down by set-ups and pay-offs.
Guiding us through it all is a compelling performance from McCounaughey, who serves as a high point for the film. Though at first it’s strange seeing him outside of his rom-com leading man shtick, it becomes evident that he can thrive just as well, if not better, in dramatic mode. (Fun fact: McConaughey got his big break playing a lawyer in the Grisham adaptation A Time to Kill.) In the first act, he dispenses frequent zingers with aplomb. Though they occasionally feel too pat for their own good, this confidence begins to contrast the uncertainty and self-examination that Roulet’s case triggers. A strong supporting ensemble, including Marisa Tomei as Haller’s fellow attorney/ex and William H. Macy as his investigator, isn’t left with much time to shine. The most egregious example of underused cast is Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, who delivers little more than a cameo.
By film’s end, Lincoln Lawyer raises notions about how to achieve true justice within the justice system. Reminiscent of Richard Gere’s character in the similarly themed Primal Fear, Haller deals heavily with the moral dilemma of defending society’s worst. The movie provides no easy answer, merely presenting one man’s method for navigating the system. If the filmmakers could have applied the same light touch to the narrative, it might have been a different case.