By Ann Hornaday
Friday, March 18, 2011; 12:22 PM
Matthew McConaughey slides into his role with the insinuating ease of a bottleneck over a National guitar in "The Lincoln Lawyer," a pleasantly seedy crime thriller set in the most featureless nether regions of Los Angeles. McConaughey plays criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller, a notorious bottom-feeder whose office is the back of a Lincoln Town Car and who counts his retainers by shaking the envelopes. Mickey is a scammer and a scoundrel and a striver in the finest cinematic tradition of Sidney Falco and Jerry Maguire.
Adapted from Michael Connelly's bestselling book, "The Lincoln Lawyer" just may have the makings of a terrific franchise, if only because it finds McConaughey so clearly in his comfort zone after a string of forgettable romantic comedies and action pictures. As Haller, McConaughey makes the most of his Texas drawl, slicked-back hair and ingratiating affability - and for those keeping score at home, yes, he does take his shirt off, but not until 45 minutes in, and even then it's too dark to see the actor's famous six-pack.
As "The Lincoln Lawyer" opens, Haller agrees to represent rich kid Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), who so earnestly insists that he didn't commit the savage beating of a girl that Haller almost believes him. With the help of investigator Frank Levin (a wonderfully shaggy William H. Macy), Haller begins to build his defense, along the way discovering that the case is far more complicated than he first thought.
Director Brad Furman gives "The Lincoln Lawyer" a down-market, retro patina, reminiscent of such washed-out classics as "Harper" and "52 Pick-Up" and, more recently, "Out of Sight" and "Jackie Brown." Granted, he exhibits a weakness for hand-held shaky-cams to convey a jangly sense of spontaneity, but for the most part he wisely lays off style for its own sake, staying out of the way to let Connelly's quirky, vividly drawn characters carry the story. ("The Lincoln Lawyer" was adapted by veteran crime screenwriter John Romano, and his chops make all the difference; check out the graceful reveal of Marisa Tomei's character in an early scene.)
"The Lincoln Lawyer" threatens to bog down in increasingly preposterous plot twists and talky courtroom confrontations, but Furman manages to keep the story simmering along with touches of ribald humor, especially with the appearance of two hilarious witnesses played by Shea Whigham and Eric Etebari, who as a nightclubbing playboy utters the deathless line, "We made pleasurable and consensual love . . . . And then I paid her."
"The Lincoln Lawyer" qualifies as a surprisingly enjoyable success, largely because it doesn't overreach. With luck, there will be more of McConaughey's Mickey Haller to come, and with luck he'll always be treated with this much casual, unpretentious affection.
R. At area theaters. Contains some violence, sexual content and profanity. 119 minutes.