One of my tried-and-true indicators of the quality of a film is whether or not my wife falls asleep while watching it. We often go to movies after her grueling dressage lessons, so she deserves a nap. But she was wide awake throughout The Lincoln Lawyer, later telling me how good it was. I growled, “Oh, you just like Matthew ‘Man Candy’ McConaughey.” Needless to say, I learned a hard lesson that day: don’t come between a woman and her man candy. That’s a lot, Matthew.
The first challenge to the makers of legal thrillers is, well, The Verdict. Where do you go from there? The quiet passion of David Mamet’s screenplay, Sidney Lumet’s taut direction, Paul Newman’s soul-baring, loser-turned-savior performance, the painfully ambiguous performance of Charlotte Rampling, the deliciously evil James Mason, and the spot-on performance by every actor in the cast. It doesn’t get any better than The Verdict. Every other legal thriller since then stands in its shadow.
And here we have The Lincoln Lawyer, based on Michael Connelly’s best-selling novel. There’s a clever conceit at the center of this gripping novel: he’s the “Lincoln Lawyer” because his Lincoln Town Car is his rolling office, the place where he does all his business. And while the moviemakers retain key scenes in the car, their Mick Haller also has an office and a receptionist. In other words, they water down one of the key elements that distinguish the novel from every other legal thriller.
The second challenge is that shows about lawyers are the mainstay of broadcast (or as I call it, boredcast) television. Movies about lawyers can’t settle comfortably into the old formulae and clichés of the genre. That field’s been picked-over. And yet this one goes at it as if neither of these challenges existed, the only distinction being the director’s use of extreme close-ups, so extreme that I felt as though I were falling into the actors’ sweaty pores.
Side note: there are two moments in the movie’s trailer that never made it to the film. In one, Haller is riding in the car with his daughter, who asks why he doesn’t have an office like her mother. When he asks her which “office” is more fun, she says his. “Boom,” he says, slapping the car’s headliner. It’s a sweet moment that defines his character, the state of his marriage, and his bond with his daughter, but it’s not in the movie. And then there’s a brief moment where Haller slides a handgun across a table to Ryan Phillippe, inviting him to use it. Never appears in the film. And it’s a shame because it suggests a more suspenseful showdown than the one they used. Let’s just say that McConaughey spends much of the final conflict sitting on a porch.
What about plot? I don’t want to give too much away. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t want to ruin it for you, and if you have, you already know the plot. Haller’s big case has him defending a club kid who may or may not have murdered a young woman. As a result, Haller finds that he, his family, and his friends have become the targets of someone’s rage. The bare bones of Connelly’s novel are here, but not the narrative voice and the nuances of character and plot. The story’s been stripped down to the point where it feels like a standard TV lawyer show but with better actors and those freakish close-ups.
OK, I admit it—much better actors. McConaughey’s fine as the over-confident lawyer who finds himself in too deep. And William H. Macy is excellent as his investigator. One of the director’s crimes is that he doesn’t use Macy enough. As small as his part is, Macy gives you the sense of the complete life of his character, a life that goes beyond the edges of the screen. Marisa Tomei is fine, too. The problem is that she isn’t given much to work with. The character’s a type—the ex-wife who still has affection for her former husband. For several years now, cable television has been giving us rich female characters like Katey Sagal in Sons of Anarchy, Edie Falco in The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie, Callie Thorne in Rescue Me, Toni Collette in The United States of Tara, and more–but not enough). And yet Hollywood, for the most part, continues to treat female characters as adornments that prove the hero’s heterosexuality instead of as fully three-dimensional, living, breathing characters. Hey, Hollywood! Looking for your lunch? Cable already ate it!