Friday, March 18, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer: Sloppy defense

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) • View trailer for The Lincoln Lawyer
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, violence and sexual content
By Derrick Bang 

Matthew McConaughey is perfectly cast as novelist Michael Connelly’s cocky defense attorney, Mick Haller, and John Romano’s screenplay is impressively faithful to the novel of the same title.

No surprise there. Connelly’s engaging book — the sort of page-turning pot-boiler one loves to have while flying across the country — reads like a film script.
Although the charges against Beverly Hills playboy Louis Roulet (Ryan
Phillippe, right) are grim, resourceful defense attorney Mick Haller (Matthew
McConaughey) has several tricks up his sleeve. But even Haller is destined to
be surprised, as this case spins off in a few unpredictable directions.

Unfortunately, director Brad Furman does the project no favors. His bombastic, exploitative approach adds an air of overwrought cheesiness to these proceedings, and he too frequently allows his characters to stand and declaim in the manner of first-year drama students. As a result, McConaughey’s performance is wildly uneven: gritty and persuasive at one moment, laughably over the top at other times.

And Furman may be the first director to encourage or tolerate sloppy work from the usually exceptional William H. Macy.

Not that we should be surprised. Pedigree always tells, and Furman’s only previous big-screen credit is 2007’s trashy armored car heist flick, The Take: reasonably diverting as a junky, made-for-cable quickie, but nothing to write home about. And while The Lincoln Lawyer, as a property, certainly represents a step up for Furman, he doesn’t rise to the occasion. I kept wishing Connelly had been able to hold out for a better director.

Casting is another problem. The first major chunk of Connelly’s novel is a classic mystery, with respect to who did what to whom, before this information is revealed and Haller subsequently winds up with a whole new set of problems. Alas, that tantalizing puzzle is blown practically from the moment we meet all the major players in this movie, because the actor in question couldn’t look more guilty if he wore a sign around his neck. To a degree, that’s because this actor always looks like a smug, arrogant bastard ... but, again, Furman could have tried harder to conceal the obvious.

Haller is introduced while plying his trade in his “office,” which happens to be the back seat of his Lincoln Continental sedan, invariably driven by streetwise colleague Earl (Laurence Mason, appropriately cool). Connelly’s book explains this intriguing affectation, but Furman can’t be bothered with such details, so audience members are left to wonder why Haller can’t afford a proper office environment.

That aside, Haller is quite willing to work with social misfits, whether members of a rough-trade biker gang or hookers struggling with a drug habit. For the most part, though, Haller demands regular visits from “Mr. Green” ... which is to say, suitable payment for services rendered.

A bail bondsman buddy (John Leguizamo, wasting his time in an under-developed part) alerts Haller to a potential high-profile windfall involving ultra-rich Beverly Hills playboy Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe). The cops believe they have Roulet dead to rights on the assault and attempted rape of a young woman, who further swears that he intended to kill her. The frantic Roulet, in complete contrast, insists that the whole scenario is a set-up by the woman and some as-yet unidentified accomplice, who intend to extort a pot of money during the inevitable civil trial that will follow a guilty conviction on the assault charge.

Taking Roulet’s version on faith, Haller assigns the case to longtime friend and private investigator Frank Levin (Macy). Early returns on various sleuthing expeditions look promising: The supposed assault victim is far from an innocent rose, and various other details add greater weight to Roulet’s account.

While these professional activities are taking place, we’re also introduced to Haller’s ex-wife, Maggie (Marisa Tomei), a prosecuting attorney who frequents the same downtown Los Angeles courthouse. Maggie and Haller have issues; they also have a young daughter, and are attempting to remain friendly for her sake.

Even Connelly’s book doesn’t handle this complex relationship very well; as a character, Maggie is something of a male fantasy about how an ex-wife should behave. Romano’s script retains many of these scenes — in some cases, quoting the same dialogue — but omits others (or perhaps some key scenes were left on the cutting-room floor). As a result, Maggie’s behavior seems downright bizarre in this film: coquettish at one moment, ferociously angry at Haller the next, and then smiles and kisses the next time we see her. Even Tomei, an actress of considerable skill, can’t make her character credible.

She’s also involved in one of this film’s most unintentionally hilarious scenes: an over-the-top bedroom encounter between Haller and Maggie that is further compromised by an intrusive pop anthem. It’s the sort of hyper-edited sex montage typical of low-rent exploitation flicks, and it brings this film to an abrupt halt.

Indeed, music is used poorly throughout the film, whether Cliff Martinez’s underscore or the several other rap numbers randomly inserted to “juice up” some scene.

Additional key characters include Roulet’s mother, well played with chilly aristocracy by Frances Fisher; and prosecuting attorney Ted Minton, equally well rendered by Josh Lucas. Actually, Lucas does a commendable job; Minton is the only character here who goes through a reasonably complex arc: initially self-righteously certain of his case, and then increasingly befuddled, his confidence draining away as Haller splinters the “sure conviction” during their courtroom duels.

McConaughey remains front and center throughout, though, and — to give credit where due — carries much of this film through sheer charisma. He has considerable presence, which makes him quite believable as a defense attorney who must bend hearts and minds in favor of seemingly despicable clients. When allowed to be laid back, exuding the poise and calm self-assurance of a master chess player thinking five moves ahead, McConaughey’s Haller is thoroughly captivating.

On the other hand, McConaughey dials the “frantic button” into overload when things begin to spin out of Haller’s control, and cinematographer Lukas Ettlin’s tight-tight-tight close-ups on the actor’s sweaty, worried face are sheer overkill. At such moments, and also when we take note of Haller’s ludicrous drinking problem, we have to wonder how this guy ever could keep a law practice going.

Speaking of Ettlin’s camerawork, it’s frequently harsh, needlessly jiggly and unevenly lighted: unpleasantly bright in some scenes, too dark in others.

And as much as I appreciate the fidelity with which Romano’s script retains most of the novel’s key details and plot points, everything sorta goes to hell during the climax, when at least two major problems are left dangling or “resolved” stupidly (not the way Connelly handled them in the book).

On paper, The Lincoln Lawyer looks like a sure-fire endeavor: solid plot by an established novelist, capable ensemble cast and plenty of interesting characters. Unlike books, though, movies are a collaborative endeavor, and too many production personnel here — most notably Furman — deliver sub-standard work. The resulting film looks cheap, rushed and sloppy.

Haller and Connelly deserve better. So do McConaughey, Tomei and most everybody else in front of the camera.

1 comment:

  1. I mostly agree with your review, though as only a reader of Connelly books, I didn't pick up on the fine points. I was just glad that McConaughey matched my mental picture of Haller and that they kept the gritty feel to the story.

    Interestingly, I always read "Haller" as the "a" sounding like "hat." When I met Connelly, he pronounced it as holler. I was amused to discover that the actors in the film have the same problem. Some say Haller and some say Holler. I would have thought the director, author (and perhaps reviewer) would have noticed that!