It’s a good thing Hollywood doesn’t depend on amateurs to cast its blockbusters.
I’ve read all four books in Michael Connelly’s wildly successful series about Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Michael (Mickey) Haller, but never once did I consider the possibility of Matthew McConaughey in the lead role or that Oscar winner Marisa Tomei would perfectly inhabit the character of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Maggie “McFierce” McPherson.
After seeing the film, however, I can’t imagine any one else playing the parts.
In “The Lincoln Lawyer,” released Friday, McConaughey slips easily into Haller’s life, complete with a cool, calm and collected courtroom demeanor necessary to practice law in an imperfect system, while Tomei provides Maggie with a luminosity rarely seen on the big screen.
McConaughey’s on-screen swagger and bravado certainly stand above recent work in bubblegum films like “Failure to Launch” and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” where he was mostly window dressing with a few good lines.
This is a role the Longview native seems born to play.
Mickey Haller is a street-smart, hard scrabble defense attorney who travels around Los Angeles in a beat up Lincoln Continental, driven by a former client who’s working off a fee.
Haller learned the ropes from his father, J. Michael Haller, a famous criminal defense figure who represented a lot of notorious criminals, including gangster Mickey Cohen.
The youngster was a good student. He knows the streets and all the players. He defends the bad guys with dogged determination. He’s not above bending the rules to suit him. And, he’s not above dodging ethics to make a buck.
The premise of the film is simple. Haller is hired by a wealthy Beverly Hills family to defend its young scion on an aggravated assault charge.
The kid, played by Ryan Phillipe in the movie’s only misstep, is charged with beating up a prostitute. Haller’s job is to punch holes in the prosecution and get his client acquitted.
McConaughey and Connelly have discussed the plot in detail, so there’s no spoiler here.
Turns out the client is guilty – of this crime and a lot more.
To give away any more would be a spoiler, so I’ll leave it at this: Haller grapples with an ethical dilemma so horrifying that it threatens to be the end of him and all he holds dear.
The screenwriters have taken a good story by Connelly and transformed it into a lush, rich, layered tale of a man trapped by his worst fear – having dropped the ball while representing an innocent client – with terrifying results.
In the past, McConaughey has resorted to taking off his shirt to detract from a weak script.
In “The Lincoln Lawyer,” his clothes do come off, but the scene is dimly lit and his pecs stay in the shadows. McConaughey lets his acting do the work here. He has a great natural strut. A lot of screen time is eaten up watching him walk to and from appearances and appointments. Not that this is a bad thing.
Courtroom scenes are edited in a tight manner, focusing on dialogue rather than crowd reaction. Good call.
However, it’s when Haller is most challenged and his family is threatened that McConaughey really gets the job done.
His face is our roadmap when things go south. Horror, terror and fear come to roost on his razor-sharp cheekbones and dig in for the duration behind his deeply set blue eyes. Even when the issues are resolved – as you know they will be because there are three more books in the series – the experience remains etched in the actor’s DNA.
Tomei has never looked – or acted – better.
I’ll be surprised if she’s not recognized during awards season. After all, she won an Academy Award for playing the ditzy Mona Lisa Vito in “My Cousin Vinnie.”
In “The Lincoln Lawyer,” she has the chance to really act, not just inhabit a sweater dress and spew facts about rear end differentials.
Maggie is a tough deputy district attorney. She’s a struggling single mom doing her best to raise a daughter. She’s also still very much in love with her ex-husband.
Her vulnerability shines in scenes with McConaughey. Together, the actors are magic. Their attraction is palpable. When the audience looks at him through her eyes, it’s easy to see how she fell in love and, despite their differences, stills holds Haller in her heart.
William H. Macy, as Haller’s private investigator Frank Levin, practically steals every scene he’s in. He’s almost unrecognizable under a shaggy haircut and a bushy moustache, but his impressive skills bleed through.
The film’s weak link is Ryan Phillipe. He’s not convincing as a bad boy. He’s just too pretty and his acting skills too limited to make the stretch from mild-mannered real estate mogul to a raging killing machine, capable of despicable acts.
Connelly has given us a wealth of great stories, including the latest installment, “The Fifth Witness,” due out next month.
With rich characters, interesting plots and stellar performances like the ones in “The Lincoln Lawyer,” let’s hope Matthew McConaughey and Marisa Tomei sign on for the long run. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Books in the Mickey Haller series are: The Lincoln Lawyer, The Brass Verdict, The Reversal and the upcoming The Fifth Witness.
Editor’s Note: The film is rated R for sexual content (mild), violence (mostly off screen) and language (which seems no more offensive than what we hear on cable TV.)
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