Lincoln Lawyer ✮✮1/2

Down These Meandering Streets …

by Glenn Lovell

Downtown slick but with more than a trace of down-home attitude, Matthew McConaughey is better than anyone around at playing hunky skunks. This should have made him the ideal choice for Mickey Haller, an L.A. defense attorney with ties to the criminal underworld in “Lincoln Lawyer,” based on the Michael Connelly bestseller.

“How does someone like you sleep at night with all the scum you represent?” sneers a cop adversary.

McConaughey: No Marlboro Man

Easy. Haller as played by McConaughey always gets the last word. During this confrontation, it’s something like Pee-wee’s pet tease “I know you are, but what am I?”

That this mystery-thriller doesn’t add up ‒ and feels more than a little contrived ‒ says something about the compromises made to keep the filmgoer from recoiling from the heel hero. This guy is dirty but, ultimately, a fair-minded family man. From what we can see he makes his money off biker gangs, prostitutes, and minorities. But, hey, at least he clocks a few sleepless nights over his misdeeds, including possibly having a client (Michael Pena) plea deal for a murder he didn’t commit.

We’re introduced to Haller to the twang of a Motown song reminiscent of 1970s Isaac Hayes. Haller is riding in the back of a shiny black Lincoln Continental. Vanity plate: NTGUILTY. Chauffeur: Earle (Laurence Mason), who never tires of telling his boss how grateful he is to be employed. Seems like everyone in Haller’s orbit in on the take, including the courtroom bailiff and informer (John Leguizamo). From his long, admiring glances we know Earle is mighty impressed by his boss’s street smarts.

Once Haller’s clientele is established with stops at county lockup, he checks in with Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a rich kid realtor being held for beating up a date who may be a hooker. Louis says it’s all a set-up to fleece his family. Mom (Frances Fisher) and the family attorney (Bob Gunton) agree. Haller puts Frank (William H. Macy), his shaggy-dog investigator, on the job. Frank, who has a nose for such things, says, “This kid feels wrong to me.”

Arty flashbacks provide the alleged victim’s and Louis’s version of the night in question. Just the name and supercilious grin tell us Louis is lying. Things play out exactly as expected. Act 1: The Crime. Act 2: The investigation. Act 3: The trial, where Haller has to do the right thing without violating attorney-client privilege.

For “Lincoln Lawyer” to have worked it needed to be a cross between Sidney Lumet’s “The Verdict” and Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye.” Haller had to be as unscrupulous as Paul Newman’s ambulance chaser to make his redemption mean anything, and the new case had to be coated with several layers of dark irony. Instead, director Brad Furman supplies flash masquerading as grit and way too many interludes with Haller’s estranged wife (Marisa Tomei), a member of the D.A.’s office (hence their conflict of interest). Just so we know Haller has his priorities straight, a work picnic includes his ex-wife, his daughter, Earle the chauffeur and Frank the P.I.

Of this weekend’s new arrivals, I looked forward to this one most, mainly because of McConaughey and the blue-ribbon supporting cast led by Macy and Pena, whose sobbing “But I’m innocent!” is the one moment that resonates. As you can tell, I was disappointed. This “mystery” is too slick by half and its “surprises” telegraphed a county away. Macy must have known this. He makes an early exit … off-camera.

LINCOLN LAWYER ✮✮1/2 Matthew McConaughey, William H. Macy, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe, Frances Fisher. Directed by Brad Furman; scripted by John Romano (from the novel by Michael Connelly). 119 min. Rated R (for profanity, violence, sexual content)

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