Brad Furman's remedial legal thriller The Lincoln Lawyer allows a shirted Matthew McConaughey to alternate between two facial expressions: casually smug and abruptly shocked. Sometimes in the heat of an argument, both compete for your attention. McConaughey's suave defense attorney Mick Haller maneuvers the Los Angeles justice system like a shark cutting through water. He conducts back-alley politics and spins small moral compromises from the back seat of his black Lincoln, a pattern of ethical meddling that shows a cunning survival instinct. With the collage of hip-hop music spewing from the radio, it's hard to miss the ride or the personality. Mick weaves his professional webs with gifts and promises to the little people of the courthouse, getting his way through buckets of sugary charm. Still, he isn't above shaking down an intimidating biker gang for monetary gain with the preciseness of a thug. His driver, Earl (Laurence Mason), even tells him, "You would have done alright on the streets." Cue McConaughey's smug smile.
However conventionally rendered, this comedic moment establishes a thinly veiled—and massively unexplored—social border dissecting the urban jungle and wealthy surface of Los Angeles's richest neighborhoods, a blurred line Mick comes to represent when he takes on the criminal case of entitled playboy Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe). As Mick slowly uncovers the different layers to Louis's suspect background and sinister motivations, issues of legal judgment and class division define each scene. In turn, the early moments between Mick and Louis have a wonderful tension to them, a high-noon quality based in the manipulation of outward projections like aggressiveness and meekness. As in most of these paint-by-numbers genre films, nothing is what it seems. Soon, Mick's confidence about his place in the social food chain is upended by a building sense of doubt and guilt, culminating in telling moment when he says, "There's no client as scary as an innocent man." For a character this devout in his occupational code, the sudden transition from cool as ice player to blabbering drunken mess is astounding, and feels entirely convoluted. Cue McConaughey's hysterical overreactions.
The underlining tension between rich and poor, and more specifically how we judge people on both sides through irrational perceptions, becomes a moot point when The Lincoln Lawyer turns into a sorry excuse for a Law and Order episode. Mick's descent into self-questioning limbo ends up tainting the lives of his straggly haired investigator (William H. Macy) and his district attorney ex-wife (Marisa Tomei), the few fledgling branches making up his hollow family tree. Yet none of these great actors inhabit roles beyond support or victimization. Late in the film, there's a flaccid attempt at courtroom theatrics, where Mick battles for big words like "justice" and "righteousness" against a dimwit prosecutor (Josh Lucas) who looks like he's perpetually passing a gall stone. Needless to say, the script plops on its ass and rides on the laurels of others. Ultimately, there's a lot of sound and fury in The Lincoln Lawyer, but it's well tread territory that doesn't have the seediness or earnestness to elevate the tired material in one direction or the other.
Interestingly, The Lincoln Lawyer has a hard-boiled identity bubbling under the conventional narrative mechanisms at work. When one shady witness says, "We made pleasurable and consensual love. Then I paid her," the film becomes dangerous. But flickers of grit like this are few and far between, and Furman can't help but drench the film in unnecessary lens flares, split screens, and jump cuts. All the twists and turns add up to little more than an anti-climactic showdown and a simplistic moral awakening. Hilariously, Mick seems to have learned nothing by the final credits. When that same biker gang rides up to the Lincoln demanding a pay cut for their violent services rendered, he takes their case for free. When Earl asks why, Mick brazenly says, "Repeat customers, you stick it to them next time." Who knew cheesy one-liners and pro-bono work could simultaneously represent the worst impulses Hollywood has to offer.