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Movie Review

The Lincoln Lawyer

Star’s slickness helps make a case for ‘Lawyer’

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / March 18, 2011

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‘The Lincoln Lawyer’’ is better than you think, but only because what you’re thinking probably can’t be printed in a family newspaper. Admit it, when you hear the phrase “a Matthew McConaughey movie,’’ your expectations slip into the basement, yes? Yes. On that score, this adaptation of a best-selling Michael Connelly crime thriller is an improvement. It’s a poorly directed yet surprisingly watchable mystery that aches to stand with the gumshoe classics of the 1970s — films like “Night Moves’’ and “The Long Goodbye’’ — and it has the supporting cast and neo-soul soundtrack to get at least halfway there.

The star takes the title role of Mick Haller, a slick, opportunistic Los Angeles defense attorney. Mick — he’s called Mickey in the books, but maybe that’s too mickey-mouse for McConaughey — rides to court in a chauffeur-driven Lincoln, an amusing high-rent/low-rent touch that advertises his ability to work both sides of the fence. He knows everybody who matters, from bailiffs to white-shoe lawyers, and who he doesn’t know he can charm or scam. It’s a part that seems designed for McConaughey, the star who can barely get out of bed in the morning.

Tipped off by a motormouthed bail bondsman (John Leguizamo), Mick takes on the case of Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a real estate heir accused of almost beating to death a prostitute (Margarita Levieva). The kid swears he was set up, and maybe he was; but we’ll learn a few things about Roulet before the movie’s over, and they call for more balls in the air than Phillippe is able to juggle. In a role marked by guile and manipulation, he seems like a stand-in for an actor yet to be named.

Surrounding Haller and his client, though, are a roster of pulpy types played by actors who can juggle in their sleep. William H. Macy as Frank, Mick’s sardonic private investigator, and Marisa Tomei as the hero’s ex-wife, a prosecutor who still likes her bad boy even if she can’t stay married to him. Michael Peña as a jailbird who may actually be innocent and Frances Fisher as Roulet’s frosty mother. The lovely, too-little-seen Pell James as Haller’s assistant, and Shea Whigham, who gives the courtroom sequence some needed comedy as a sleazy little jailhouse snitch.

Happily slumming, they file in and out of this overplotted story, hit their marks and move on. For better and for worse, “The Lincoln Lawyer’’ is such a close approximation of an airport novel that you can practically run your fingers over the embossed cover. The movie has its pleasures (see above) and its definite liabilities, the latter including Lukas Ettlin’s cinematography, which overdoes the pointless hand-held wobble-cam and is dingy, to boot. The star’s patented 24-7 tan looks like rust here, although that may be the shoddy projection typical of Boston’s downtown multiplexes (in this case, the Fenway).

As for McConaughey, he’s called upon to experience grave ethical conflicts, which means the poor boy has to act. That’s a problem: Mr. Naked Bongo Man hasn’t truly worked his thespic muscles since at least “We Are Marshall’’ (2006) and arguably as far back as “A Time to Kill’’ (1996). Yet if the character’s emotional struggles seem out of his comfort zone, Mick’s sleazy confidence is made bearable, even likable, by McConaughey’s light coating of oil.

It feels, at times, like the actor sat down and watched “Harper’’ (1966), the sleepy LA noir in which Paul Newman played detective Lew Harper, a character based on Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. McConaughey is doing Newman Extra Lite here, and it works well enough to hold you for almost all of the film’s two-hour running time. Connelly, of course, is a prolific and much-loved crime fiction master whose Mickey Haller series (the fourth and latest comes out next month) offers the star a shot at a franchise. “The Lincoln Lawyer’’ is formulaic enough to suggest that franchise would be B level at best, a TV series at worst. But it’s also just good enough to make you want to watch it, anyway.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

THE LINCOLN LAWYER

Directed by: Brad Furman

Written by: John Romano, based on the novel by Michael Connelly

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Phillippe, Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy, Josh Lucas, Shea Whigham

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 119 minutes

Rated: R (violence, sexual content, language)

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