The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Lincoln Lawyer

Written by Pete Falconer.

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As its title suggests, The Lincoln Lawyer is centred on a single individual, but one who can be said to conform to a particular type. What the movie does well is engage with our expectations about precisely what type that is, and how we might feel about it. Where this is most apparent is in the film’s casting.

In recent years, Matthew McConaughey has been the butt of a number of jokes. One of the most memorable of these is Stewie Griffin’s weary tirade in the Family Guy episode ‘The Former Life of Brian’. In one of the show’s signature pop-culture tangents, we are shown the futility of “telling Matthew McConaughey how much he sucks.” Sat at a lunch counter with McConaughey, Stewie tells him, “You are just awful. You’re one of the worst actors in the history of film, and I think that you need to go away.” McConaughey frustrates Stewie with his cheerful response to this critique. He acknowledges that his films are terrible, but celebrates the wealth and pleasure that his stardom has brought him.

It is this apparent gap between achievements and rewards that has provoked many such attacks on McConaughey. The point being made in the Family Guy scene, as well as in articles like this one is that he is more famous and successful than his movies merit. This perception, however, has more to do with the ways that his films have presented him than it does with any intrinsic qualities or abilities that he may or may not have.

The problem has been that too many movies seem to take McConaughey at face value. An Onion AV Club article refers to How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003) as reflecting “Hollywood’s inherent cynicism about love, the idea that anything can be overcome if you’re just hot enough.” The complaint is that McConaughey’s movies unproblematically locate his value in his good looks and charm and that this is treated as enough to make him basically worth rooting for. Historically, audiences have not had too much of a problem with Hollywood equating the good with the good looking, but they still prefer filmmakers not to lean on the convention too brazenly, but to handle it with a little subtlety and finesse.

This is what makes The Lincoln Lawyer a tentative step in the right direction for McConaughey. As I suggested in my shorter review, the film establishes a more interesting context for his star persona. We are quickly made aware that Mickey Haller’s professional life revolves around manipulating people. Thus, we understand his external qualities in relation to this - initially, we have good reason to be suspicious of the attractive image he presents to the world. Of course, we do not reject him entirely. He is still the star of the movie, and the convention runs deep. He still looks like the hero, but the way he is introduced means that he will have to earn the title as the story develops. The unscrupulous defence attorney may be a stock figure, but it is an effective way to bring some ready-made complexity to the McConaughey persona.

This is vital for a movie so built around its protagonist. The Lincoln Lawyer is a film that returns again and again to its star’s face, using its different expressions and reactions to shape our perception of the story. If our relationship with this face were set up as one of straightforward admiration, then the whole film would come across as shallow and facile. The way that Mickey Haller is immediately framed as both likeable and somewhat sleazy is important in helping to avert this.

But it is only the first step. The process is taken further by the film’s use of its excellent supporting cast. Situating him in a detailed human context brings depth and nuance to the portrayal of Haller. Through a series of connections and contrasts, the pretty boy actor playing a familiar character becomes something more distinctive and specific.

A lot of this comes from the film’s careful juxtaposition of faces. Of particular relevance to what I have been suggesting about McConaughey’s star persona is the use of Ryan Phillippe as Haller’s sinister young client. Phillippe’s countenance is so smooth and boyish that it is almost featureless. This has the effect of making McConaughey look less bland and generic in comparison. It makes us perceive Haller as older, his features slightly more worn, his slickness tempered with a dimension of vulnerability. The casting of Marisa Tomei as Haller’s ex-wife also contributes to this. From the evidence of her recent movies, Tomei has entered middle age with elegance and grace. She seems admirably unselfconscious about the slight lines that have appeared on her face - she has certainly made no attempt to restrain her attractively mobile features. In her scenes with McConaughey, the two of them look like well preserved people in their forties, which is exactly what they are.

If Phillippe and Tomei draw our attention to a slightly rougher, more lived-in side to Mickey Haller, this effect works well when set against the actors playing some of the other lawyers in the movie. Josh Lucas, as prosecutor Ted Minton, contains the character’s peevish energy behind a mask of calm, bland normality. Like Phillippe’s Louis Roulet, there is something too clean, too cold, about Minton’s face. We might remember that Lucas played one of Patrick Bateman’s barely distinguishable yuppie friends in American Psycho (2000) - there is some of the same groomed sterility on display here. Another actor carrying echoes of previous roles is Bob Gunton, who plays Cecil Dobbs, the Roulet family attorney. Gunton’s stock in trade is stern, humourless authority figures, notably the prison governor in The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and the police chief in Demolition Man (1993). With his silver hair and impassive squint, he presents an image of forbidding patriarchal seriousness. Haller, by contrast, speaks with a Texas accent and does roadside business with biker gangs. He does not belong to the official legal establishment that these supporting performances are able to evoke.

The element of the underdog that this gives to Haller is developed by association with two other supporting characters, the lawyer’s closest professional associates, his driver Earl (Laurence Mason) and his investigator Frank Levin (William H. Macy). These characters create and preserve a sense of the ordinary, to which Haller, for all his slick manoeuvring and personal foibles, retains a connection. The script offers neither actor a huge amount to work with, but both performances manage to suggest a great deal. There is a compelling edge of diffidence to both characters, providing a sympathetic contrast to the pinstriped confidence that surrounds them. With his flat cap and pencil moustache, Earl’s style matches that of the Lincoln he drives - it is smart, but in a funky, retro manner rather than a more formal, corporate one. Similarly, the long haired, droopily moustached Frank looks out of place in Cecil Dobbs’ large, well appointed offices. In an early scene, Frank’s clear discomfort in these conditions (a feeling that Macy is particularly skilled at conveying) is juxtaposed with his obvious competence and diligence in investigative matters. The movie insistently connects Haller to these two characters - they are the substance of his everyday life. This connection reminds us that, behind his flashy self-assurance, Haller is basically a working man.

The overall effect of these strategies is not so much to redeem Haller as to make him more interesting (this does involve making him sympathetic, but that is not the whole process). I do not mean to suggest that McConaughey’s performance is propped up by the actors around him, simply that his persona works best when it is effectively situated. The movie is able to do this by devoting attention to a varied array of different faces and sets of mannerisms. As a (still just about) photographic medium, film is able to register the millions of little visual details that differentiate one human being from another. In its efforts to help us take its leading man more seriously, The Lincoln Lawyer brings us back to one of cinema’s most basic pleasures.

This Alternate Take was published on April 12, 2011.