As memory serves, Matthew McConaughey appears shirtless for no more than two or three minutes of The Lincoln Lawyer’s two-hour running time—decidedly an inverse ratio of shirtlessness to shirt-wearing in comparison with every other McConaughey starring role of the past decade. And along with that newfound sartorial modesty, McConaughey seems to have renewed his commitment to his chosen craft, delivering a real performance instead of looking like he’d rather be off surfing (much as I wished I was during the entirety of Failure to Launch, Fool’s Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past).
There’s always been a real actor lurking somewhere beneath McConaughey’s bronzed façade, even if it hasn’t surfaced much since his attention-getting early roles in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and the John Grisham adaptation A Time to Kill—performances that had some critics and commentators hailing McConaughey as a young Paul Newman (instead of a young Fabio). But The Lincoln Lawyer reminds you what it was people saw in McConaughey way back when. As the fast-talking, bottom-feeding Los Angeles defense attorney Michael “Mick” Haller, whose office is the back seat of a chauffer-driven black Town Car, McConaughey strides through the film with the cocksure swagger of a gifted hustler who delights in staying one step ahead of the next smartest guy in the room and playing all available sides against a nonexistent middle. When one client, a crystal meth dealer and member of a menacing biker gang, fails to pay his retainer, Haller responds by having the man’s trial postponed pending the location of a crucial missing witness, a certain “Mr. Green.” Yet, even as he tips the creaky scales of justice up and down, Haller maintains some kind of perverse moral compass, making him the kind of charismatic antihero who thrived in the annals of dime-store fiction and Fifties film noir.
Based on the bestselling novel by Michael Connelly—the first of three featuring the Haller character—The Lincoln Lawyer is itself the sort of pulpy time-killer that Hollywood has by and large abandoned making in favor of more ostentatious “event” movies. Adapted by screenwriter John Romano (whose anemic earlier credits include the Richard Gere-Diane Lane sudser Nights in Rodanthe and the Coen brothers’ aptly titled Intolerable Cruelty), the movie has a revved-up narrative engine and the snappy banter to go with it. It’s also stuffed with more highly enjoyable character actors per square inch than any movie of the season, most of whom give performances so juicy you may wish to wear a bib. They include William H. Macy as Haller’s eccentric private investigator, Marisa Tomei as Haller’s public prosecutor ex-wife (with benefits), John Leguizamo as a slippery bail bondsman, Bryan Cranston and Michael Paré as a couple of snub-nosed cops, and Frances Fisher as a Beverly Hills real estate doyenne with ice in her veins and Botox in her cheeks. Then there is an actor by the name of Shea Wigham (the Atlantic City sheriff from Boardwalk Empire), who shows up late in the day as a seasoned jailhouse snitch and handily walks off with the entire movie.
It’s Fisher’s son, played by Ryan Phillippe, who becomes Haller’s latest client after he’s accused of brutalizing a prostitute within an inch of her life. A higher-class perp than the Haller norm, the rich kid does protest his innocence perhaps a bit too much, and flatters the lawyer too, by hand-picking him to serve as his counsel. But soon the master legal manipulator begins to suspect—and not without reason—that he has become a puppet on someone else’s string. At around that point, I set down my notepad and let the twists, turns and other modest pleasures of The Lincoln Lawyer wash over me—or at least as much as one can, given that the movie has been over directed within an inch of its life by one Brad Furman, a music video veteran who clearly never met a smash zoom, jump cut, desaturated color, or herky-jerky handheld camera move he couldn’t embrace. For two hours, he hurls them all at The Lincoln Lawyer, to rapidly diminishing returns. A much better version of this movie may exist somewhere in the editing-room blender, to be excavated by cine-archeologists of the future.
Of course, you don’t go to a movie like The Lincoln Lawyer expecting a directorial master class, but a hatchet job like this does make one long for the solid, unfussy craftsmanship of a competent journeyman like Gregory Hoblit, whose Primal Fear and Fracture remain the recent high-water marks for this brand of courtroom potboiler. The final verdict: Matthew McConaughey gets out of movie jail, but Brad Furman awaits trial for reckless endangerment of an audience.
I was pleasantly surprised by Tom McCarthy’s Win Win—surprised because any movie billed as “from the director of The Station Agent and The Visitor” sounds like a lose-lose proposition to me. And when the movie in question is called Win Win, and its central character is a lawyer/high-school wrestling coach (Paul Giamatti) whose losing team is a metaphor for the general downward slide of his life, there’s even more reason to be wary. But unlike McCarthy’s two earlier insufferable exercises in can’t-we-all-get-along piety, Win Win carries itself lightly. It’s the first of McCarthy’s movies to give the characters some breathing room, the first in which they aren’t completely boxed in by the machinations of the plot, and the first in which they feel like actual people.
When we meet Giamatti’s Mike Flaherty, he’s struggling to make ends meet for himself, his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan), and his two young daughters. He’s a lawyer, yes, with a seemingly comfortable suburban New Jersey existence, but like a lot of people with seemingly comfortable suburban lives, he operates on a thin margin, made even thinner by a down economy. Then Mike makes a desperate decision: he agrees to become the legal guardian of an elderly client (an excellent Burt Young) in the early stages of dementia, even though he has no intention of doing so, and even though he just has his eyes set on the modest monthly stipend that comes with the job. So he deposits the old man in a nursing home and starts depositing the stipend into his bank account—until the man’s teenage grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), shows up unannounced, having run away from a drug-addict mother and her violent boyfriend.
The setup is vintage McCarthy: strange bedfellows meet and form unlikely friendships. Caught between a rock and hard place of his own creation, Mike agrees to let Kyle crash in his basement until the boy’s mother can be located. Jackie, alarmed by Kyle’s bleach-blond hair and array of elaborate back tattoos, promptly bolts the basement door and remarks, “I’m not taking any chances with Eminem down there”—a gag line in every sense. Thankfully, Win Win is (mostly) better and smarter than such cheap shots. McCarthy still favors the tidiness of TV sitcoms (and Sundance Festival audience favorites) over the messiness of real life—Kyle, wouldn’t you know, turns out to be the wrestling prodigy Mike has been waiting for, and soon everyone is getting along famously, until (cue third-act climax) suddenly they're not. This time, though, McCarthy actually has something meaningful on his mind, by which I mean something more meaningful than teaching us that dwarves and Arabs are people too. He also has an ace up his sleeve in the form of newcomer Shaffer, a real-life wrestling phenom who has star presence and an intuitive understanding of the camera.
In the late Sixties, the team of director Michael Ritchie and producer-star Robert Redford planned to make a trilogy of movies devoted to the American success ethic, and specifically, in Redford’s words, “the pyrrhic side of winning.” Only the first two installments, Downhill Racer (1969) and The Candidate (1972), made it to the screen, and they remain unrivaled studies of personal ambition run amok in a society that insists on seeing everything in terms of wins and losses—at the work place, on the home front, in the halls of government. Win Win is a less ambitious piece of work, but it has its finger on a similar theme, and in its gentle way, argues for a more elevated form of discourse (even as Charlie Sheen argues for the opposite). At the same time, McCarthy understands the thrill of incontrovertible victory and our primal lust for it. Late in Win Win, when Mike asks Kyle pointedly what it feels like to be as good as he is, the taciturn boy shrugs and says it feels like he’s in control, “of everything.” “Must be nice,” says the coach. “It is,” says the boy. For anyone whose life has ever been shaped by competition, who has won or longed to win, this can't help but ring true.