Pick of the week: The pretty boy triumphs as a flawed hero in the gripping L.A. thriller "The Lincoln Lawyer"
Spring is finally upon us, and if what you need to chase the last cold-weather blahs away is an old-fashioned American crime flick about a good-looking, half-corrupt guy, a beautiful woman who’s tough as nails and a mystery so dark the California sun can’t penetrate it, then this week offers one of the year’s most delightful Hollywood surprises. Fueled by a bravura, career-reshaping lead performance from Matthew McConaughey and the stylish, assured direction of Brad Furman (whose only previous feature is “The Take”), “The Lincoln Lawyer” turns Michael Connelly’s best-selling novel into a gritty, gripping L.A. noir, heir to the spirit of Raymond Chandler, “The Rockford Files” and “Jackie Brown.”
No, I know: I didn’t hold out much hope for this movie either. I don’t want to oversell, but doggone if it isn’t good! Although the saga of Mick Haller (McConaughey), a skilled but sketchy defense attorney who does business from the back seat of a not-so-new Lincoln Continental, is set within a decade of the present — I’m guessing the production designers were aiming at 2004 — Furman’s film has a funk ‘n’ soul late-’70s feeling with a dynamite soundtrack to match, as if it were a forgotten West Coast project from early in Martin Scorsese’s career. It’s not like I’m inventing that comparison: Early in the film we follow McConaughey and John Leguizamo (playing a shady bail bondsman) through the circuitous corridors of a courthouse in an extended traveling shot right out of the Marty playbook. At least to my taste, Furman and cinematographer Lukas Ettlin never let their technique get in the way. This is lean, mean storytelling, focused on the characters, their setting and their predicament. (Connelly fans: I am aware that the lawyer is called Mickey in the books, not Mick, and that his office is a Town Car, not a Continental. So it goes in the movies.)
McConaughey was unfairly stigmatized as a vapid pretty boy at the peak of his stardom, and was often more enjoyable than he had any reason to be in mediocre rom-coms like “The Wedding Planner” (which might, in retrospect, have been Jennifer Lopez’s high-water mark as a movie star). He’s still plenty handsome as a harder-edged character actor in his 40s, and may be heading for a highly satisfying Clooney/Newman second act. He walks the fine line between charm and sleaze beautifully as Mick, a guy whose suits fit a little too well and whose hair has a touch too much grease. Mick is likable enough and retains some basic human decency, but doesn’t appear to have any ethical scruples you’d notice. He defends Hell’s Angels, drug dealers, hookers and murderers — any lowlife who can pay — and does his best to get them off on technicalities or plea-bargain down to the minimum.
Like any hard-boiled hero, Mick drinks too much and yo-yos in and out of bed with his prosecutor ex-wife, Maggie (Marisa Tomei), who doesn’t entirely want him back because she suspects that defending scumbags has left him permanently scum-slimed. Of course this is a film noir, so Mick’s next client is as symbolic, and as fearsome, as the dragon in a medieval romance. That would be Ryan Phillippe as the insolent, smirking Louis Roulet, a rich kid who claims he’s been set up in the vicious beating of a prostitute. As Mick tells his friend and private eye Frank (William H. Macy, with an awesome aging-surfer hairdo), the scariest kind of client is an innocent man. Louis and his well-connected Beverly Hills family represent both tremendous opportunity and grave danger, a big-time meal ticket and a chance for Mick to save his own soul.
As Mick and Frank begin to peck away at Louis’ case, which — surprise, surprise! — conjures up strange echoes of a different case from Mick’s past, Furman fills up the movie with delicious supporting characters and a baked-L.A. vibe so strong you can almost smell the weed, smog and hot asphalt. Frances Fisher plays Louis’ mother, a buttoned-up matriarch who seems (at first) like a befuddled observer of the complicated chess game between Mick and her son. Macy, as always, can create an entire character out of almost nothing — a nonplussed reaction, a single line, a haircut and a pair of shorts. Shea Whigham and country singer Trace Adkins are hilarious in brief appearances, playing the two most disreputable witnesses ever to appear in an American courtroom.
Given that the plot of “The Lincoln Lawyer” is either archetypal or formulaic (take your pick) and that you may detect some of the twists before they get here, it’s crucial that Furman’s direction, John Romano’s screenplay and McConaughey’s performance are so vivid and high-spirited. It’s rare enough to see a Hollywood movie made with this much attention and personality, let alone one that balances comedy and darkness as well as this one does. Not everybody makes it out of “The Lincoln Lawyer” alive, but this is a colorful and generous entertainment, not a plunge into the abyss. If its charming, roguish and not-quite-depraved hero can be redeemed, there may be hope for the rest of us. And as loath as I am to endorse sequels, there are at least three more Haller novels. If Furman and McConaughey want to build a franchise here, you won’t hear me complaining.
More Related Stories
- J.J. Abrams reveals deleted shower scene with Benedict Cumberbatch
- What's behind New York's anti-gay hate crimes?
- Paul McCartney backs Pussy Riot
- Cannes: Ryan Gosling's new movie draws the boo-birds
- Radio host tweets rape joke, blames journalists for reporting on it
- Juror responds to Joe Francis' insults with thoughtful email
- New track from the Lonely Island features Solange Knowles, semicolons
- Amazon introduces fan fiction publishing platform
- Naomi Watts, "Argo," "Wonderstone" among bizarre Teen Choice Awards nominees
- Imprisoned Pussy Riot member declares hunger strike
- The camp-free "Behind the Candelabra"
- Justin Bieber will destroy you if you live-tweet his parties
- Marc Maron on Twitter feud with Michael Ian Black: "We have an understanding"
- "Girls Gone Wild" creator Joe Francis to jury: "You should be euthanized"
- Ai Weiwei releases heavy metal music video
- Actually, Beyoncé is a feminist
- Marc Maron and Michael Ian Black's epic Twitter battle
- Cannes: Directing 101 with James Franco
- Welcome to the jungle: The definitive oral history of '80s metal
- Burt Bacharach opens up on daughter's suicide
- Steven Spielberg to produce "Halo" television series
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11