In “The Lincoln Lawyer,” Matthew McConaughey’s criminal defense attorney might seem like one cool customer, but in truth he sweats everything — the big stuff, the small stuff, the clients, the cases, the ex and the kid. Perhaps this is less a function of the high drama in this tightly coiled legal conundrum than someone saying, “All right, but if Matthew’s going to keep his shirt on, let’s at least keep him dripping wet.” Because, as countless beach photos in Us magazine attest, McConaughey does some of his best work wet.
He was never better, or sweatier, than playing a hot Southern lawyer trying to win a racially charged murder trial in the 1996 big-screen adaptation of “A Time to Kill.” Instead of John Grisham’s morally fraught attorney-client privilege dilemma, this time we’ve got Michael Connelly’s even darker vision of that sacred trust, spun inside a plot thicker than McConaughey’s honey-dipped Texas drawl.
Against all that heat, everyone and everything else just melts, which makes the film not the slam-dunk legal thriller it might have been. The biggest puddle turns out to be the client in the hot seat. Ryan Phillippe’s Louis Roulet is a young Beverly Hills real-estate slick in the mega-mansion business with a dirty little habit of paying for sex on the side. The question for the jury is whether or not he was the brutal beater or the intended mark of one Reggie Campo (Margarita Levieva). She’s a working girl pummeled in the heat of the night, who might be looking at a big pay day if she can drag this into civil court with a criminal conviction in her favor.
Now, Phillippe can definitely pull off arrogant, as he did to troubling effect in 1999’s “Cruel Intentions.” But he’s far more comfortable playing the innocent, his young Navy hero in “Flags of Our Fathers” chief among them. In “Lincoln,” that inherent goodness seeps through to work against him. The notion that there might be a vicious sicko and not just a spoiled rich kid behind those blues eyes and blond curls just never takes hold.
Without that tension, the filmmakers rely on McConaughey’s Mick Haller to emote concern, anger, regret, outrage, fear and revenge as he tools around Los Angeles in his Lincoln Town Car, license plate “NTGUILTY.” He’s got a “Driving Miss Daisy"-style chauffeur named Earl (Laurence Mason) offering up observations on the deals Mick brokers in the back seat. And an ex named Maggie that Marisa Tomei serves up as a luscious adversary, fighting the good fight of a prosecutor.
But this is McConaughey’s show, and to that end he is framed in long shots, tight shots, even just one-eye shots, with director of photography Lukas Ettlin working it from every angle. Unlike the cinematographer’s bumpy view of the city in the current “Battle: Los Angeles,” in “Lincoln,” Ettlin gives both the movie and us a smooth, stylish ride around town.
This is director Brad Furman’s first real shot at big-time filmmaking, with a handful of shorts and one feature, the little-seen 2007 righteous revenge flick “The Take,” all that’s in his pocket. What Furman did right in “The Take” was cast John Leguizamo in the lead, and he uses the actor again here in a small but tasty morsel playing a sleazy bail bondsman. Another satisfying mini-bite comes from Michael Peña (also in “Battle: Los Angeles”), making his few minutes as a one-time client count.
While Furman shows a mostly steady hand with his actors, the narrative flow trips things up considerably. Connelly’s book turns out to be too much for screenwriter John Romano to handle. Romano has worked across the TV spectrum and has a few film credits, including co-writing the adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ sappy romance “Nights in Rodanthe.” But the intricate plotting that distinguished the book overwhelms the movie.
It’s a shame that no one seems to know what to keep and what to discard. Among the unfortunate, William H. Macy, as Mick’s private investigator and a key player in the mystery, is dispensed with so fast that you wonder why they bothered. Meanwhile, Josh Lucas’ greenhorn of a prosecutor fades, as the tense courtroom sparring and most of the character’s spine is missing.
“Lincoln’s” saving grace is the way McConaughey manages to be magnetic against all odds. In Mick, there is a maturity not seen in his other work, a more nuanced performance as the actor exposes the uncertainty inside the smooth sarcasm, the decency behind the grifter’s smile. If only we could have seen more of that, even with his shirt on.