The Lincoln Lawyer and the Beginning of the McConaissance


by Niall McArdle

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If you want to find the root of Matthew McConaughey’s rebirth as a serious dramatic actor, you should look to 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer. From a novel by Michael Connelly, scripted by John Romano, and directed by Brad Furman, this is the film that set McConaughey on the road from rom-com lightweight surfer dude naked bongo guy to Oscar-winning A-lister (and Lincoln pitchman.)

Look at the films that he made immediately prior to this: Two forgettable pieces of fluff: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Surfer Dude. A very alright alright alright cameo in Tropic Thunder (which he was only in after he replaced Owen Wilson after Wilson’s suicide attempt.)

And now look at the films which followed The Lincoln Lawyer:

Bernie

Killer Joe

The Paperboy

Mud

Magic Mike

Dallas Buyers Club

The Wolf of Wall Street

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I can’t remember who McConaughey thanked in his Oscar speech for Dallas Buyers Club, but he really should have mentioned Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucchessi: they were the Lakeshore Entertainment producers who brought him The Lincoln Lawyer; they were the guys who knew he had the acting chops, and who knew he could do serious work again.

He’s great in this.

I think The Lincoln Lawyer is a solid legal thriller that also subverts many of the genre’s elements. It concerns an attorney (McConaughey), a very streetwise kind of guy, a hustler (not exactly an ambulance chaser, but he’s not exactly the most ethical of lawyers.)

This is a movie lawyer very different from the attorneys that the actor played in A Time To Kill and Amistad. Far less idealistic, much more cynical.

He operates out of the backseat of his Lincoln (with good reason: he has to be at several different courthouses across Los Angeles in one day, and so it helps to be mobile: author Connelly got the idea after meeting a lawyer who told him he operated out of his car for that very reason.) He is hired by a snooty rich kid (Ryan Phillippe) who has been accused of beating the crap out of a prostitute.

Although in many ways the film has all the standard beats of the legal thriller that we have come to expect (twists, surprise witnesses, personal danger for the lawyer) it also plays with and against many of those conventions.

It’s a very smart piece of entertainment with a great screenplay (there’s a bomb placed near the beginning of the first act that you’ll totally forget about, that goes off at the end of the third) with an absolute top-notch cast.

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Just take a look at the cast: McConaughey, Phillippe, William H. Macy, Marisa Tomei, Michael Pena, John Leguizamo, Bryan Cranston, Frances Fisher (Unforgiven), Josh Lucas (discount McConaughey), Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire), Bob Gunton (the nasty warden from Shawshank).

Jesus, even Michael Pare shows up. I haven’t seen him in years. By the way, he’s turning into Tom Berenger.

I am not a fan of Ryan Phillippe: he’s somewhat cold and aloof, but that very trait is brilliantly used here. He’s perfectly cast as this spoiled, arrogant rich kid, and the scenes between him and McConaughey are great.

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Also great (as always) is Macy in a very non-Macy performance.

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Michael Pena and Shea Whigham have very small but crucial roles, and they’re both brilliant.

There are some silly cliches of the genre, of course:

McConaughey’s ex-wife is sexy Marisa Tomei –  Guess what? she’s the prosecutor

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The judge is outraged when the prosecution pulls an unethical stunt

You hear the word “objection” an awful lot

McConaughey gets drunk, wallows in self-pity and sobs at the moment of the film’s crisis

But it’s also got some surprising stuff that we don’t see much in this sort of film, and which are probably an accurate reflection of how justice is really served in Los Angeles: the backroom machinations involving bribing the law clerk, and the dodgy activities of the Macy character (he’s McConaughey’s investigator.)

It’s also filmed in bits of the city that you don’t see much. It looks hot and dirty and scruffy.

All photos courtesy of The Lincoln Lawyer Facebook Page

My fluffcast about The Lincoln Lawyer was made with extra special help from my cat. And yes, before you ask, I know that “Kitten” is a very unoriginal, non-descript name for a cat. 

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