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Review by Ryan Wilson

Courtroom thrillers have been with us almost as long as we’ve had movies, but the genre became a pop culture phenomenon in the late twentieth century. In the 1990s lawyers suddenly became more than just supporting characters; they became film protagonists, and sexy ones at that. Pop novelist John Grisham gave them personal moral conflicts to overcome along with their court cases, and the public loved watching the plots unfold in theatrical legalese. But like any fad, the audience eventually figured out the procedure. By the turn of the century, Grisham’s formula felt cliché and sensational. These days, most of the hotshot lawyers are on network TV shows, where cliché and sensational stories never go out of fashion.

Which is why the new legal thriller The Lincoln Lawyer feels so late for the prom. Not only does the film borrow from nearly every legal thriller you’ve ever seen, but it stars Matthew McConaughey, whose breakout performance was in the 1996 Grisham adaptation of A Time to Kill. Because of this previous role, casting McConaughey feels either brilliant or lazy: brilliant because audiences already associate him with a smooth-talking attorney, lazy because McConaughey can basically coast through the film without really stretching himself or his audience.

Not that the audience for The Lincoln Lawyer wants to be challenged beyond a twisting legal case. I’ve always felt that this specific genre of film or novel appeals most to those people who want some mental titillation beyond their mundane nine to five existence. It’s why back in the 90s you’d see hordes of commuters reading these books on the subway and why mainstream stars like Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts knew that these movies would gross well on the weekends. The story’s never deep or literary, but a fun escape.

If The Lincoln Lawyer offers little surprises, it also won’t disappoint the faithful. Based on Michael Connelly’s popular novel, the film focuses on oily attorney Mickey Haller. He’s so street-smart that he conducts most of his business from the back seat of his Lincoln town car. For the briefest of seconds this premise feels like a Driving Miss Daisy joke waiting to happen, but then we see him stand up to a biker gang from his backseat, and we accept his authority. The plot officially begins when he takes on a rich client, played by Ryan Phillippe, who’s been accused of raping and beating a prostitute.

I could describe more plot details, but why ruin the ride. Predictably, neither the preppy nor the prostitute are what they appear to be, and as Mickey Haller learns more about his case, he is put to the test, both as a lawyer and as a man. It’s the type of scenario where the characters stand in a room trading lines like, “You set me up!”

Really it’s the audience that’s set up. To underscore Mickey’s ethical quandary he’s given the typical trappings, a still interested ex-wife, played by the under-used Marisa Tomei. She’s just waiting for him to see the error of his professional ways, to stop putting the needs of his guilty clients ahead of his family. He also gets a best friend investigator, played by the great William H. Macy, who tells Mickey when a case “just doesn’t feel right.” It’s not a surprise that when the plot thickens, Mickey’s friends and family find themselves imperiled.

As you would also expect, there’s some nifty courtroom maneuvering that would feel almost unnecessary if it weren’t there to make the audience feel clever. Suspense is achieved without compromising the character or the plot, and for this the film deserves credit. The major problem is that the film doesn’t quite know how to end. Mickey is so brilliant in the courtroom that the whole affair gets wrapped up cleanly there. But the film keeps going, presumably because we haven’t seen enough heroics in court.

McConaughey may feel at times as if he’s phoning in his performance, but that may also be his brilliance. For too long he’s languished as a leading man in bad romantic comedies, so it’s good to see him play an amoral attorney. By the end, we almost forget about A Time to Kill, where he was so young and solemn in that dreadfully earnest Southern melodrama. Here he wins us over as an older man who’s encountered the ambiguity of the world and shrugs it off. He knows the system and how to work it. As his infamous character David Wooderson from Dazed and Confused might say, “It’s money in my pocket.”

As money as McConaughey is, The Lincoln Lawyer will hardly usher in a new era of legal dramas to the screen. But during a week with a busy and depressing news cycle, it will distract you from the reality of the outside world. Sometimes, falling back on a formula isn’t so bad.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011