"The Lincoln Lawyer" plays like the pilot for a TV series that would die after three weeks. The script is legal boilerplate bolted to mundane characters, the acting is baked-ham buffet, and the direction is basic cable mediocrity incarnate. It's the most unrewarding two hours you could spend in a theater, short of a total power outage.
This legal melodrama stars Matthew McConaughey as L.A. defense attorney Mickey Haller. Although his character's clientele is made up of bikers and underclass murder defendants, McConaughey's performance is a nonstop smug swagger. An actor of more depth might suggest that a struggling, double-dealing lawyer who affects a top-of-the-world attitude is putting on a brave front. The smirking McConaughey merely seems as self-infatuated as usual. No matter what role he plays, his spirit animal is a peacock.
Mickey, whose clichéd cynical exterior disguises an even more clichéd idealism, lucks onto a lucrative case that will test both aspects of his character. A handsome real estate heir (Ryan Phillippe) accused of brutalizing a prostitute wants Mickey to defend him. The goalposts of success shift several times as dark deeds come to light and Mickey tries to a) set his client free, b) serve the greater demands of justice and c) hold onto his practice and his life as threats to both arise.
Michael Connelly's novel, unread by me, reportedly uses first-person narration to reveal Mickey's struggles with ethical quandaries and personal demons. The film drops this device and any shades of gray surrounding the character. This is a star vehicle expressly designed to make its leading man look wonderful. As Mickey's ex-wife, Marisa Tomei regards McConaughey with rapt adoration. He may be the only lawyer in film history who actually makes it to his daughter's soccer practice during a murder trial. Not a game, mind you, a practice. No wonder Tomei urges him back into her bed with a honeymooner's eagerness. You've gotta love this guy. No, really, you have to. We insist.
Several normally reliable actors swim helplessly against the tide of Brad Furman's heavyhanded direction. There's not much that even William H. Macy can do as Mickey's wisecracking private investigator, whose defining characteristic is a haystack of surfer hair. John Leguizamo's cameo as a corrupt bail bondsman does little to revive his flagging film career.
Bryan Cranston might have given his stock role as an antagonistic police detective a squirt of real bile, but he's in and out of the film as if passing through a revolving door. With luck, "The Lincoln Lawyer" will be here and gone just as quickly.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186