Sunday, September 11, 2011
I admit it. I was hoping that the protagonist of The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) would be a guy who admired and quoted Abraham Lincoln, not a guy who rides around L.A. in a gas guzzler. Still, it is a pleasure to see a film and a leading actor who both exhibit well-earned confidence, falling just short of swagger. And somehow the earnest version of Matthe McConnaughey is more convincing when it peaks out from behind a slick and self-assured facade.
Producers Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucchesi are to be commended for putting their confidence in director Brad Furman, whose rather thin resume makes such commercial polish and pace less than a certainty. Furman does not appear to be one of those Hollywood hotshots who's dying to sell out without having had any integrity to begin with, like those maestros of emptiness, Brett Ratner and McG, And the casting suggests that director and producers had ambitions, especially the presence of the ever-reliable, ever-rewarding William H. Macy, Marisa Tomei and Frances Fisher.
But the piece of casting that will likely continue to resonate is Ryan Phillipe as a relentless sociopath. Phillipe has always seemed a blank surface, and his lack of traction as a leading man could be ascribed to the sense of deadness behind his eyes. Here that deadness is put to excellent use, and I suspect that he is now as permanently set as, if not necessarily a villain, certainly an unreliable character, just as Tony Perkins always seemed about to go "off" after Pyscho.
Yet, with all this skill, why does Lincoln Lawyer feel like just another movie, and not another Verdict? First of all, the film feels as though it were being deliberately set up as the first of a series, although at this point that is evidently unlikely (it is based on a book which is the first of a series, but as I write this the follow-up is more likely to be on television than in the movie house). And like a series character, Mick Haller doesn't learn or change much over the course of the film. The plot lines are neatly tied up, and of course, no character is introduced unless they will serve the storyline at some later time. Incorporating something for the sake of context, texture and character revelation is alien to this kind of storytelling machine -- hence, the whiff of television lingers around what is a very skillful feature film.
And the bad guy is both generic and sui generis; either way, he is someone we are never going to meet -- the evil will never threaten us the viewers. It is purely a mystery-thriller that never threatens or challenges the viewer, the way a whodunnit feels so cozy despite its implied violence.
We might have been satisfied with this sort of thing on the big screen 40 years ago, but despite the high skill employed, which is why although the film seems designed for sequels, Mick Haller will probably find his home in our homes.