It’s easy to forget that before he became synonymous with shirtlessness, six-pack abs, groovalicious good times, partying with his bros, and keeping it mellow, Matthew McConaughey was heralded in some corners as the Paul Newman of his time, a strikingly handsome actor with serious dramatic chops. McConaughey returns to the slick lawyer roles he played in the pre-walking-punchline stage of his career with The Lincoln Lawyer, a new legal thriller based on a Michael Connelly novel in the time- and airport-tested tradition of John Grisham. McConaughey plays a fixture of the genre: the glib, seemingly amoral smoothie who develops a conscience while discovering, much to his surprise, that there may be more important things than money.
Leaning hard on his good-ol’-boy charm and devastating good looks, McConaughey stars as an enormously successful lawyer adept at playing all the angles. He specializes in getting drug dealers, murderers, and other scum of the Earth exonerated, so he doesn’t think too much of it when he’s asked to represent Ryan Phillippe, a wealthy WASP accused of viciously beating a woman. But the case nevertheless reawakens his dormant idealism.
The Lincoln Lawyer gets off to a promisingly ambiguous start, but it takes a turn for the shrill and melodramatic with the arrival of Michael Paré as a cop unafraid to shout his disapproval of McConaughey’s questionable ethics. From that point on, the film devolves into the cozily predictable world of TV legal dramas, abandoning the moral uncertainty of its opening scenes for the benefit of a villain so comically over-the-top in his evil, he might as well be theatrically twirling a mustache and tying a damsel in distress to train tracks. Phillippe has established himself as a credible dramatic actor in films like Igby Goes Down and Breach, but he regresses here to the kind of sneering playboy roles he vacantly inhabited before he proved he could act. The Lincoln Lawyer represents a slightly different, incongruously clothed vehicle for McConaughey, but like so many of his recent romantic comedies, it’s agreeably mediocre, a cinematic paperback novel transformed into the kind of fare folks mindlessly consume on planes and forget about before touching down.