Movie Review - The Lincoln Lawyer

BY ROBERT HAMMERLE, guest contributor to Hammervision


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NEWS FLASH! Matthew McConaughey can actually act!  REPEAT!  Matthew 

McConaughey, particularly when liberated from co-starring with the woeful Kate Hudson, can actually act! 


Okay, Okay, so I am being a bit melodramatic.  But having watched "The 

Lincoln Lawyer," it is gratifying to see what Mr. McConaughey can actually accomplish when he once again gets to work with a nuanced screenplay.  


Unfortunately, most movie fans today have long ago forgotten the promise McConaughey demonstrated in such enjoyable films as "Lone Star" (1996); "A Time to Kill" (1996); "Contact" (1997); "Amistad" (1997) and the very underrated Sci-fi gem "Reign of Fire" (2002).  Poised for not only stardom but critical recognition as a genuine talent, he then decided to do such trashy films as "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days" (2003); "Sahara" (2005); "Failure to Launch" (2006) and "Fool's Gold" (2008).  It is not an exaggeration to say that these films were painful to watch, and McConaughey's reputation amounted to little more than a male mirror image of the annoyingly perky Ms. Hudson.   


But with "The Lincoln Lawyer," McConaughey has clawed back from the artistic graveyard.  Here he plays Mick Haller, a criminal defense lawyer whose office is the backseat of a Lincoln Town car being driven by his good natured African- American Chauffeur.   Think of "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989), only in this case Miss Daisy is a male lawyer who is part Jimmy Stewart from "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959) and part Joe Pesci's Vinny Gambini in the immortal "My Cousin Vinny" (1992).


Let me say from the outset that there is a lot to like about "The Lincoln 

Lawyer."  And that is anything but faint praise given my inherent difficulty with movies centering on the Criminal Justice System in general, and criminal defense lawyers in particular.  Let's just say that after 35 years in the courtroom as a criminal trial attorney myself, I have grown quite weary of sophomoric depictions of my profession.  


Having said that, let me be clear that there have been some tremendous movies focusing on the judicial system.  I was inspired to go to law school in part after watching Spencer Tracy's extraordinary performance as a lawyer based on the famous Clarence Darrow in the classic "Inherit the Wind" (1960), as well as Gregory Peck's Oscar winning performance as the compassionate Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962).  Despite the fact that both lawyers lost in the end, I was and remain moved by the way that they were dedicated to their clients and the legal profession.  


Additionally, there have been numerous other wonderful movies that focus on the courtroom.  Aside from the above-referred to "Anatomy of a Murder" and "Vinny," there was Gregory Peck in the almost forgotten "The Paradine Case" (1947); Charles Laughton's brilliant performance as an aging lawyer with a taste for the grape in "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957); Spencer Tracy, Maximilian Schell and Burt Lancaster in the heartbreaking "Judgment at Nuremburg" (1961), as well as "A Few Good Men" (1992), which revealed just how talented a pre-psychotic Tom Cruise was.   


But despite those classics, movies more often than not present a sophomoric, not to mention misleading view of our Criminal Justice System and the roles lawyers play in it.  While Mr. McConaughey was quite good in the above- referenced "A Time to Kill," the preposterous ending where he asks a fixed jury to close their eyes during closing argument, thereafter persuading them to change their mind, was preposterous by any definition.   The audiences cheered Al Pacino at the end of "And Justice for All" (1979) when he confessed his client's guilt during closing argument, a scene that caused many young lawyers to cough up a hairball into our popcorn bag.  And then there was that horrid moment in the horridly overrated "Love Story" (1970) where Ali MacGraw, upon learning that her law student boyfriend had just found out that he was number three in his class, infamously responded, "Why weren't you number one, preppy?"  All of us law students had one thought at the time, namely, "die, witch, die!"  And we felt no guilt when she did!   

And it is precisely with that skeptical background that I come to largely praise "The Lincoln Lawyer."  McConaughey is wonderfully authentic as a divorce criminal defense lawyer trying to make a living from his mobile office.  He is constantly rushing from one courtroom to the other, trying to see that justice is done while he also hunts down his clients in the hopes of being paid.  Sure, he knows that many of his clients are unsavory characters who are largely guilty of what they are accused, but he also fully understands the hideous burden of being called upon to represent someone who may indeed be innocent.  

 

In addition, McConaughey's pursuit of justice has clearly left personal scars.  All trial lawyers know that ours is a totally schizophrenic professional lifestyle where you are called upon to concentrate on at least 10 to 15 different matters in any given hour.  It has left McConaughey divorced, occasionally seeing a daughter that he loves and washing away the aftertaste of his lifestyle with some booze whenever possible.

   

I should also note that this film is helped immeasurably by several fine 

supporting actors.  Marisa Tomei is every man's ideal ex-wife, though she is given little to do.  William H. Macy is splendid as an eccentric private 

investigator, and Michael Peña is heartbreaking as an innocent prison inmate who took a plea agreement at the insistence of his lawyer who couldn't or wouldn't believe his protestations of innocence.   


Quite frankly, what makes "The Lincoln Lawyer" so intriguing is what 

eventually causes the movie to become unglued.  McConaughey's Haller is asked to represent a young rich boy named Louis Roulet (a splendid Ryan Phillippe), a smug and titled sort who is accused of viciously beating a prostitute.  Unfortunately, Haller soon learns that he has a connection to Roulet's past, an event that not only puts Haller's life in jeopardy, but those he loves.   


While "The Lincoln Lawyer" dances very close to being a good old fashion film noir, it simply gets too fond of its many twists and turns.  Sure, you are kept guessing, but the cost is turning this legal thriller into the type of film lawyer's dislike at best and hate at worst.   Regardless, I believe that "The Lincoln Lawyer" is worth the price of a ticket, particularly for those of you who don't share my built-in prejudice for lawyer 

related films.  It's got some spunk and humor to it, not to mention genuine suspense, and at a minimum it was nice to see McConaughey recover his A- game.

   

As an aside, let me close with a reference to McConaughey when he played a young lawyer in the very moving "Amistad."  He had an exchange with Anthony Hopkins, who played an aging John Quincy Adams, which I think represents a mantra that all criminal defense lawyers should embrace.   When Hopkins' Adams refused McConaughey's entreaties to represent the slaves who were charged with murder, McConaughey pleaded with him, "But if you won't represent them, then who will?"  Hopkins turned to face McConaughey and famously said in words to the effect, "Young man, go get someone who finds inspiration from losing."  Those are words that no criminal defense lawyer who wants to pursue our profession with pride should ever forget. 

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