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Nice Work, Counselor: The Case for The Lincoln Lawyer

The Lincoln Lawyer has been out for a couple of weeks, and even though it’s low-key and got so-so reviews that compared it to TV law shows, it’s hanging on and building an audience. I know why. Law shows largely stink, whereas The Lincoln Lawyer is as good a translation of the work of Michael Connelly as we’re likely to see.

Connelly’s tightly-plotted genre novels, most featuring the detective Harry (for Hieronymus) Bosch, are grounded in his intimate knowledge of Los Angeles, the parts that don’t include the studios or Beverly Hills. He was a city reporter for more than a decade and he knows how things work and why they often don’t. He’s especially good at intramural tensions—between cops and cops and lawyers and lawyers. Also between cops and lawyers and cops and journalists and lawyers and journalists. It’s not fancy writing, but the craftsmanship is terrific—and, like the best of its ilk, invisible.

The two other “city” thriller writers with whom Connelly is often grouped, George Pelecanos (Washington, D.C.) and Dennis Lehane (Boston), have shown impatience with genre novels. The feverish Pelecanos, who brought his brilliant insights into underclass anger to The Wire, seems more interested in movies now, while Lehane (who wrote Mystic River and Shutter Island) is aiming higher. His new genre book, a sequel to Gone, Baby Gone that explores the consequences of that novel’s troubling climax, is truly terrible. How quickly he forgot how to shape a decent thriller! Another of my favorite “city” genre writers, Lawrence Block (New York), seems to be going through the motions these days, using sadism to cover for the lazy plotting.

Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer books center on defense attorney Mick Haller, who turns out to be related to Bosch (a source of tension in later novels). His license suspended because of a DWI conviction, Haller decided to hire a driver and use his car as his office. (That’s the Lincoln—the link to Abe is ironic.) The arrangement works so well he keeps it even after getting his driver’s license back. Now, he can race from county to county, courthouse to courthouse, jail to jail, making deals on the fly. He talks fast, he’s well turned out, and he’s a master of the legal bribe, which is how he expedites his often lucrative cases. He tends to defend scumbags, which is the why the cops hate him.

Brad Furman’s movie nails all that in the first 20 minutes. Well, he misses one thing: he never orients you vis-a-vis the move to the car for doing business—a serious omission. But the other stuff is lickety-split. At first, I found Matthew McConaughey too joyless for the role. He’s drawn and unsmiling; he doesn’t seem to get off enough on his wizardly machinations. But McConaughey—a vastly underrated actor—convinces you of one thing: that Haller has removed himself emotionally from what he does. He moves so quickly because he thinks in terms of the process, not the ends. Which makes him damned.

That is, frankly, one of Connelly’s limitations: He tends to side with prosecutors and policemen, stopping just this side of extolling vigilantism. (Bosch crosses the line, but even if other characters disapprove, I’m not sure Connelly does.) Haller is a morally ambiguous protagonist, and the aim of The Lincoln Lawyer is to see what happens when he’s pushed farther than he thought he ever would be. What happens when he becomes the detective and has far too much empathy for the victim?

But those big thematic questions are routine—truly the stuff of TV law dramas. The reason the novels and the movie work so well is that they’re all about minutiae, about how Haller gets from place to place, case to case, plea to plea. It’s about how hard it is to tackle vexing moral issues in the middle of trying to win cases and earn a living. Haller has an ex-wife (Marisa Tomei) with whom he’s on surprisingly decent terms and a young daughter, but his deepest ties are to his investigator, Frank Levin (William H. Macy), whose casual grooming and solitary lifestyle suggest why Mickey would seek out his company over straighter “family” men. McConaughey and Macy have an easy, gentle rapport. Their friendship is channeled through their work.

The Lincoln Lawyer has been cast with fascinating actors. Ryan Phillipe plays a wealthy client who’s charged with beating up a prostitute and was probably set up for the woman to win a chunk of money in a civil settlement—and the actor is, as always, chillingly unreadable. Michael Pena continues his string of amazing transformations as a client from Haller’s past who begs him not to take a plea bargain for a crime he says he didn’t commit. Shea Wigham seizes his moments as a jailhouse stoolie: In his few scenes it's clear why clever sociopaths make it so hard for cops and courts to do their jobs with anything but feigned confidence. Even stock roles are well-cast: Bryan Cranston (the peerlessly shifty star of Breaking Bad) adds all kind of layers to the role of a hostile detective.

Haller’s ultimate strategy is perverse and riveting, the climax a shocker. But The Lincoln Lawyer doesn’t transcend its genre. Instead, it does a deft job of reminding you—after too many by-the-numbers TV series—why the genre sprung up in the first place.

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