Reeling It In: Light reading, light movie

Posted: Thursday, March 31, 2011

"The Lincoln Lawyer"


1 hour, 58 minutes

You know when you're in the airport, waiting for your flight to be called, and you wander down to the bookstore to pick up a paperback? It's always the same authors. Dean Koontz. John Grisham. Tom Clancy. Mystery thrillers, legal thrillers, military thrillers, romantic thrillers -- none of them stellar writing, but c'mon, when you're stuck on a plane for four hours do you really want to be struggling through Dostoevsky?

These books are relatively light, and usually entertaining. One writer that I always see, but have never actually picked up, is Michael Connelly, author of the previously adapted Clint Eastwood thriller, "Bloodwork," and of the currently adapted Matthew McConaughey thriller, "The Lincoln Lawyer." I don't mean to disparage Connelly by lumping him in with the other airport authors -- after all, good pulp fiction can be a lot of fun, and the film adaptations of these books are often very good themselves -- even, in one case, better than just about any other movie ever made. Most people think "The Godfather" was a prestige project from the start, but its real roots lie in Mario Puzo's trashy soap opera of a novel, the ultimate airport book if there ever was one.

So, does "The Lincoln Lawyer" hit that high standard? No. But, it is a pretty perfect big screen recreation of both the highs and lows of the typical airplane paperback.

First, you have to have a damaged, but hunky hero. Enter McConaughey as Mick Haller, slick defense attorney extraordinaire, cruising the streets of San Francisco in a big black Lincoln, conducting his business from the plush backseat. Haller has long since come the conclusion that all of his clients are guilty as sin, so why worry about it? He plays his part in the big legal cat and mouse game very well, and more often than not, his clients walk away, free as can be.

Haller has a conscience, however, and this is the second requirement. The hero has to have something in his past that keeps him up nights, wondering if he's a good guy, or bad. In Haller's case, it was a murder case where, despite the defendant's protestations of innocence, his lawyer convinced him to take a plea to avoid the death penalty.

As well as a hero, you have to have a villain, and usually these guys are sick, twisted and ingenious, all the better to test our hero's intellect and push him to the very limits of his morality. This role is played by Ryan Phillipe as Louis Roulet, a spoiled rich kid on trial for attempted rape and murder, and battery. I won't give away the plot by revealing whether Roulet did it or not, but the movie doesn't really try very hard to keep it a secret. The rest of the story is a back and forth between these two adversaries, occasionally involving colorful side characters, but mostly just a test of wills and wits.

"The Lincoln Lawyer" follows this formula to the letter. This is both what is so comforting about the film, and what's wrong with it. It's junk food. I've either seen or read this story a dozen times, and "Lawyer" makes no attempt to freshen it up at all. When the big moral revelation of a film is that defense attorneys defend bad guys because that's how the system works, and that everyone, even the guilty, are entitled to a defense, it starts to feel like this a film transported directly from 1982.

On the other hand, with no surprises to worry about, you can just relax and enjoy. The acting is all passable, not bad, but not stellar either. McConaughey has moments that remind you that he's really a good actor -- moments, but good moments, to be sure. Really, no one involved does a poor job, although the script leaves something to be desired. It's kind of like an episode of "Law and Order." Those things'll suck you in for an hour or two, not because they're so great, but because they don't really require anything of you. "Lincoln Lawyer" is like that.

I will say though, that casting Phillipe against McConaughey was a poor choice. I never felt like the game was evenly matched. Despite what the script or the events of the film were telling me, I never felt like Haller was in any danger of losing this contest. This lessened the tension, but again, if all you want is a low-rent, easy to absorb legal thriller, "The Lincoln Lawyer" is the show for you.

So, settle back in your seat, put your tray table in the upright position, and let it all wash over you. Touchdown will be before you know it. Grade: C+

"The Lincoln Lawyer" is rated R for language, violence and sexual situations.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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