Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Raising the Bar

How long has it been since Matthew McConaughey has been known for anything besides his good looks? Sure, he's had his share of hit films over course of his career, with romantic comedies like Fool's Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, dramas like We Are Marshall, even the psychological thriller Frailty. But McConaughey's resume isn't what has been getting him the most attention of late. Appearing on several "sexiest man" magazine covers, it's easy to forget that once upon a time he was one of the more respected and renowned actors in Hollywood. Often picking film that are more "fun" than critically acclaimed, he's all but secured a second or third tier celebrity status, well below the likes of George Clooney or Javier Bardem, but still above say, Michael Douglass. With the trailers to The Lincoln Lawyer, however, McConaughey seems to be refuting that status. Reminding so many people of his captivating performance in 1996's A Time To Kill, the box office winner looked to be as charming as ever in this adaptation of the novel my Michael Connolly, perhaps finally choosing a role that put his full talents on display. It certainly looked good enough to draw me out to the theater this past Sunday, hoping that the trailers did more than highlight the film's best moments.

A very special episode of Law & Order: Celebrity Victims Unit
McConaughey plays small-time defense attorney Mickey Haller, a smart and charming smooth-talker who, despite a career of defending lowlifes and scumbags and holding a not small amount of disdain for overzealous cops and prosecutors, is actually the hero of this story. Out of the blue, Haller is brought in on a high-profile case: a wealthy Beverly Hills playboy named Louis Roullet (Ryan Phillippe) is being accused of beating and threatening to kill a young woman he had met one evening. Naturally, he claims that he's being set up, and there is certainly enough doubt accredited to the woman's story to make such a statement feasible. As more and more facts become known however, what began as a straightforward case becomes a twisted cat-and-mouse game in which Mickey's not sure who to trust, or what he can do to make things right.

Macy channeling his Boogie Nights persona
The strength of the story lies in its straightforwardness and honesty. Told exclusively from the perspective of Haller, the film's tale is learned by the audience at the same time our hero becomes privy to it. In this way, we're never under the impression that the characters know much more than we do, and this helps draw in the audience to the point where stepping away before conclusions are drawn is nearly impossible. You're invested in nearly every second of the film's run time, and the time spent never feels empty, as every moment bristles with the tension of wondering what new ground-breaking piece of information we'll learn next from the film's assorted cadre of characters.

I just wanted to plug in a photo of Marisa Tomei... for all the obvious reasons
The film's biggest draw is that of its cast. Director Brad Furman did a wonderful job filling in all the roles, even if most of them pale in comparison to McConaughey. The film is told from Haller's singular point of view, and it's fortunate that an actor of McConaughey's charm is in charge here. A perfect blend of charisma, humor and brains, Haller is practically written for McConaughey to melt into. The film suffers slightly for never straying from his side (it's probably the closest I've seen to a one-man show with an ensemble cast), but not so much that it permanently damages the relationship with the audience. I'll see Marisa Tomei in just about anything, so varied are her exceptional performances. She's just as good here, though her role as Haller's District Attorney ex-wife isn't the kind of award bait that her aging exotic dancer in The Wrestler was. Still, she does a great job and some of the film's best scenes are where we see both the good and bad in the relationship between the former flames. Sweet yet strained, it was a fully realistic pseudo-romance, enhanced by the stars' chemistry. That Tomei also played a smart, sophisticated woman as well is almost a bonus. William H. Macy is also good in a small role as Haller's private investigator friend, and solid performances abound from such varied talents as John Leguizamo, Josh Lucas, Frances Fisher, Bryan Cranston, Michaela Conlin, Margarita Levieva and Laurence Mason. Michael Pena as well is simply amazing, and while he is relegated to only two short scenes, his character proves to be so engaging and important that you really care what happens to him despite his brief appearance. The only real disappointment among this crowd is Phillippe, who has never been one of my (or many people's) favorites. The only film I've liked him in was last year's MacGruber, and then only because he was able to drop that uber-serious attitude he usually brings to roles not unlike this one. When all is said and done, he's given far too good a role to know what to do with, and doesn't pull it off convincingly. Still, with McConaughey in charge of just about every scene even this small annoyance barely makes a real fuss.

Get over it Matthew; Cranston has won more awards than you
If there's anything lacking here, it's the result of a rather lackluster ending that tries a little too hard to tie up all the loose threads. Compared to the rest of the film, it lacks the composure to be attractive to the audience and results in a bit of disappointment in comparison. Still, The Lincoln Lawyer is good enough to recommend to anyone looking for a fun movie, even if the subject matter is a bit more mature than Haller's one-liners. An ideal platform for Matthew McConaughey to dispel any thoughts that he can't do more serious fare, The Lincoln Lawyer tops out at #4 on the 2011 Top Films list. A lot of fun and a good old fashioned legal thriller, I think just about anyone can go into this film and more or less enjoy it.

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