Bet you didn’t even know this was a comeback you’d ever want to see? We sure as hell didn’t. It only took him nine long years, but Matthew McConaughey has finally found a worthy showcase for the talent we’d all forgotten he actually possessed. Front and center throughout the slickly made legal drama The Lincoln Lawyer, the bongo-playing free spirit’s performance feels like a revelation, but it’s more of a reminder.
Prior to 2003’s How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days, McConaughey’s career was on a good roll, at least as far as people other than romantic comedy fans were concerned. His hilarious breakthrough turn as stoner with an eye for high school tail in 1993’s Dazed And Confused is already the stuff of Hollywood legend, but it was McConaughey’s work in serious fare like A Time To Kill (1996) that hinted at great potential. Needless to say, his puzzling descent into rom-com hell and Surfer, Dude crap over the last nine years pretty much undermined every good thing he did prior.
The Lincoln Lawyer, fortunately, is a step back on track. Based on crime novelist Michael Connelly’s 2005 book, McConaughey’s best movie in ages is a brisk and stylish exercise in standard courtroom storytelling—what director Brad Furman’s movie lacks in irregularity is made up for with able-bodied acting, swift energy, and a strong lead in McConaughey. When familiar stories are told well, it’s effortless to look past the unoriginal aspects and simply enjoy the workmanship, a point exemplified by the The Lincoln Lawyer. Rest assured, that’s as strange to type as it no doubt is to read. We might as well admit it: McConaughey has tossed a pie into our hating faces.
He plays Michael “Mickey” Haller, a confident and experienced Los Angeles defense attorney who rides around in a black Lincoln equipped with a personal chauffeur and a “NTGUILTY” license plate (the kind of move that lands you on a list of The 10 Sleaziest Movie Lawyers). Thinking his shit doesn’t stink, Haller takes on a case involving a spoiled rich kid (Ryan Phillippe) accused of beating a hot-piece prostitute (Adventureland’s Margarita Leveiva) to near death. Riding alongside Haller into a series of twisty reveals is his loyal private investigator friend (an underused William H. Macy), as well as his prosecutor ex-wife (Marisa Tomei, still Tinseltown’s most radiant 46-year-old).
Based on the trailer and McConaughey’s sullied name, The Lincoln Lawyer was primed to sink—color us guilty of prejudgment. But there’s something else one could brand us with now: pleasant surprise. The Lincoln Lawyer overachieves, rising above the trial genre’s conventional and present tropes (unexpected witnesses, reversals of guilt, dangerous run-ins outside of the courthouse) on the strength of modest yet palpable tension, earned laughs, and Furman’s sure hand.
Furman, whose only other feature film credit is the 2007 straight-to-DVD flick The Take (starring Tyrese Gibson and John Leguizamo), knows exactly what kind of movie he’s making. Within minutes, Erick Sermon’s “Music,” for no clear reason, scores a scene where McConaughey and his driver cruise around L.A. By the film’s end, Eric B. and Rakim’s “Don’t Sweat the Technique” and Gang Starr’s “Moment of Truth” also play, all heard whenever McConaughey’s black driver is in view (go figure). The Lincoln Lawyer isn’t high art; it’s artificially hip, a flashy commercial vehicle packaged with savvy audiences in mind.
And that’s just what McConaughey needs, frankly. Even though Haller is the deepest character the actor has played in years, he’s still a guy who thinks he’s the coolest man in the room, a demeanor that McConaughey’s born to play. At any moment, Haller seems on the verge of exclaiming, “Alright, alright, alright.” In duds like Fool’s Gold, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, and the aforementioned Surfer, Dude, his bleached-brain shtick only intensified the films’ surrounding aloofness to story and intelligence; here, though, McConaughey has the benefit of tussling with writer John Romano’s lively script.
Satisfying enough to make an overindulgent 120-minute length painlessly tick by, The Lincoln Lawyer succeeds as an engaging time-killer. It’s greatest accomplishment, though, is clearing its leading man’s rep, if only momentarily. A few more projects of this degree and McConaughey could very well jump off the Screen Actor’s Guild “Avoid Like The Clap” roster (trademark: Complex) and back onto its watchlist.