Silver Screen: The Lincoln Lawyer ***

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Silver Screen: The Lincoln Lawyer ***
Bryan Miller

Since-- intentionally or otherwise-- branding himself a stoner Romeo, Matthew McConaughey has made it awfully easy to forget he was once touted as an heir to the throne of dashing thespian-types like Paul Newman. It's tough to imagine Newman appearing in a movie called Surfer, Dude, even after seeing those pictures of him dressed in weird hats on his salad-dressing bottles.

Though McConaughey kicked around in smaller parts and smaller movies previously, and laid the groundwork for his future fandom with a terrific performance as an amiable cradle robber in Dazed and Confused, it was 1996's one-two punch of Lone Star and A Time to Kill that thrust him to the front of the line for Serious Parts for Serious Actors. That streak continued in 1997 when he played a lawyer fighting for a shipload of accused slaves in Steven Spielberg's Amistad, and then a Unitarian-minded religious philosopher in the excellent sci-fi flick Contact. It wasn't long before the once and future Newman started to take 'er a little too easy in a series of limp romantic comedies, most notably a particularly wan pair of movies with fellow was-gonna-be Kate Hudson, establishing them as kind of the underachieving counterparts to Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

But McConaughey finds a nice compromise in The Lincoln Lawyer, a not-too-serious drama that requires of its lead equal parts smarmy confidence and overheated speechifying. Most of his big successes have come playing laywers, and “troubled huckster” is right in his wheelhouse. He's just the right man to play Mick Haller, a divorced (and somewhat absentee) single father who greases the wheels of justice in the name of defending an array of accused clients-- whoever can pay his hefty fee, be it high-class hookers, biker-gang-sponsored meth cookers, or, in this case, preppy heir Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), accused of beating and attempting to kill a sex worker.

Roulet's case is just one more on Mick's docket, a frantic schedule he can only maintain by employing chauffeur Earl to drive him around in the Lincoln he uses as an office. But Roulet soon becomes a top priority when Mick not only begins to doubt his client’s story, but suspects a connection to a previous case in which he was unable to keep a young man (Michael Pena) out of jail.

The Lincoln Lawyer is a slick, unexceptional, but well-executed genre exercise, pure and simple. It's based on a novel by the prolific Michael Connelly, who cranks out solid crime thrillers at a brisk pace and who has seen his work translated to the screen before with some success (Clint Eastwood's Blood Work). The Lincoln Lawyer has the pace of an effective airport-rack paperback novel, which is mostly good-- a lot of nicely timed twists and good supporting characters.

McConaughey is fun to watch as the fast-talking Haller, who by night broods over tumblers full of whiskey as he sweats and thumbs through stacks of documents. It leans toward the overbaked side of John Grisham at times, but it works, thanks in part to a slew of excellent supporting players, including Marisa Tomei as his prosecutor ex-wife, William H. Macy as his private investigator on retainer, Josh Lucas as opposing council, and Boardwalk Empire's Shea Whigham as a jailhouse snitch. A significant opportunity is missed, however, in not expanding Haller's relationship with his driver, Earl, who is likeable in his brief screentime but uncomfortably gets relegated to Driving Miss Defense Attorney.

What ultimately keeps The Lincoln Lawyer from achieving greater heights is its lack of a good villain. The cartoonishly evil rich boy, a half-dimensional character done no favors by the edgeless Phillippe, is an unworthy antagonist who seems out of place among the rest of the film's interesting players. It's a deficiency from which the film cannot fully recover, but the rest of the picture goes down as smooth as the fake whiskey McConaughey seemingly never stops drinking. For once, here's hoping for a sequel.