Just Keep Litigatin’: The Lawyering Roles Of Matthew McConaughey, Part 2

Don’t call it a comeback! Or do. Free country.

Last week we reviewed the first three appearances of Matthew McConaughey, Attorney at Lawesome. In the second of this two-part series, let’s look at the most recent, and, dare I say (dare! dare!), most good movies in which MM plays a lawyer.

4. (fourth McConaughey lawyer movie chronologically, albeit the first one this week) The Lincoln Lawyer (2011). Given McConaughey-as-attorney’s predilection for freeing The Black Man (Time to Kill, Amistad), it’s a little strange that he doesn’t do that in a movie with “Lincoln” in the title. Yes, it refers to the car that his character uses as the world’s coolest office.

Last things first: does the trailer end with our boy silently nodding?

That was a rhetorical question, Matt.

When your car is named Lincoln, you lose points if you have a black guy drive you around. Hence, Matt is a slightly more-doable Miss Daisy. However, all points restored if you get paid via cash-filled envelope. I choose to believe that McConaughey’s contracts require studios to compensate him in this fashion.

The Case. Our lord and savior stars as Mick Haller (“Mick Onahay” would have been too much to ask) a sleazy-but-effective criminal defense lawyer who is hired to represent creepy rich putz Louis Roulet (played by Ryan Philippe, and vice versa), who has been accused of attacking a prostitute. But is there more to the case than meets McHaller’s jaded eye? Spoiler: yes.

The Role. This is definitely the kind of sharkish lawyer Mattisyahu should be playing, as opposed to the do-gooders he portrayed in the 90s. When a client neglects to pay his bills, Haller lets him gather dust in jail until “an indispensable witness, a ‘Mr. Green'” can be located. Money being green, you see. He does come down with an unfortunate case of the do-the-right-things when he realizes that a former client has been falsely imprisoned, and that’s disappointing. What was great about his character in Wolf of Wall Street, aside from every single thing, was that we never got to see any guilt or doubt. True, that character wasn’t in the movie much, but after seeing that, Magic Mike, Killer JoeTrue Detective and large portions of Dallas Buyers Club, morally righteous Mick Onahay is far less interesting than his Mephistophelean doppelgänger. He should never play another trustworthy character.

Production Note. The unjustly convicted client is named Jesus. Subtlety can go f*ck itself, I guess.

Production Note 2LL came out 3 years ago.  Magic Matt uses a flip phone, and at one point a cameraman hands over a VHS tape.  So I spent a lot of time wondering if this was a not-too-distant-past period piece.

Verdict. I can unreservedly recommend this one as an enjoyable drama/thriller/twisteroonie story. It’s nice to see Marisa Tomei, playing a prosecutor and MM’s ex-wife, back in a courtroom, although her wardrobe has become disappointingly appropriate since My Cousin Vinny. But while The Lincoln Lawyer doesn’t make attorneys look bad–you can’t accomplish that after casting McConaughey, although Spielberg was somehow able to dorkify him in Amistad–it has some odd views about the profession. A lot of people dislike Haller not just personally, but because he represents (shudder) GUILTY PEOPLE.

Well, yeah. I’m sure that’s an ugly job, but somebody literally does have to do it. The alternative would be saying hey, the police are pretty much infallible, we can go ahead and imprison/execute everybody who gets arrested; if cops make the occasional mistake, charge it to the game. I don’t want that. I don’t think even Nancy Grace wants that, although she probably does. Mostly, though, I don’t like people being mean to my favorite person ever, so stop criticizing Matt, everybody in this movie.

Discovery. For those who haven’t noticed, IMDb provides a “Plot Keywords” feature, allowing you to search for movies based on certain themes or tropes. Like, if you enjoy Avatar, you can click on the keyword “alien” and find one of the million movies that also include creatures from outer space (although Avatar takes place on another planet, so I guess humans are the aliens in that one. Deep). Lincoln Lawyer’s top keywords are:

I think I speak for everyone ever when I say that if a movie prominently features “lawyer,” “prostitute” and “stabbed to death,” sign me the f*ck up.

More Discovery. I was fascinated, so I clicked on “see more” keywords and was treated to this.

Mother of God. Why even bother asking people to recommend movies when you can just search for everything that features “envelope full of money”? The downside to that one, it turns out, is that a plurality of the results are episodes of Boardwalk Empire and Sons of Anarchy. The winning choice might be “hit with a baseball bat”; in case there was any doubt, no actual sports movies are included in the list. You could start a pretty decent viewing binge here, as your top choices are The Untouchables, Inglourious BasterdsCasino and, of course, The Lincoln Lawyer. Crime against humanity–they somehow neglected to include The Shining, which undermines the credibility of IMDb as a site.

5. Bernie (2011)

Batter up, motherf*cker. (via YouTube)

And so we reach the end. Bernie is, to date, the last movie in which McConaughey plays an attorney. But it’s good!

The Case. Matt’s character is named Danny Buck Davidson (greatest McConaughey character name ever! Better even than “Dallas”!), a prosecutor who handles the case against the eponymous Bernie (Jack Black, acting surprisingly non-Jack Blacky). It is purportedly based on a true story, so already the editor of this site is suspicious. However, it’s a small, self-contained narrative that can be adequately covered in a film (based on a magazine article, not a book), several actual townspeople appear in the movie to comment on the real events, and even the nephew of the (spoiler!) murder victim played by Shirley MacLaineaughey said that they got it right. So eat that, Vince. [For the record, this and American Splendor would both be in my top five for examples on how to do based-on-a-true-story right, by doing it slightly different than the same ol’ bullshit. -Ed.]

Bernie is a popular but quirky (read: gay) funeral director in a small Texas town. He befriends Marjorie, a wealthy elderly woman, who is a notorious local c-unit, and she seems to hate everybody except Bernie. She buys him expensive gifts and takes him on lavish vacations; in return, she demands that he wait on her hand and foot (I think literally) and treats him increasingly sh*ttily. Ultimately, Bernie hands in his Texas Resignation Letter; i.e., he shoots her.

Enter Double M. Danny Buck (love it) joins the story at this point as the D.A. prosecuting Bernie for the murder. Bernie’s defense is that, while he did it, it was the result of prolonged abuse and some kind of temporary fugue state, so what say we give me a mulligan on the whole thing. Danny Buck ain’t having any. It does not help his case that Bernie hid Marge’s body in a freezer, pretended she was still alive and spent her money lavishly for months after he killed her.

Verdict. This is a popular but quirky (read: quirky) movie. Popular with the critics, anyway–it made less money total than the worst Transformers sequel made on a bad weekday, which is reason number infinity why we can’t have nice things. Blackonaughey does an excellent job playing against type, MacLaine is shrill but she kind of has to be and writer/director Richard Linklater adds an unexpected chapter to his oeuvre. And it was an interesting role for Matt to take, possibly marking the beginning of his golden age.

It’s a little odd that he would take a supporting part in a small movie, considering that the alternative was getting overpaid for none-too-taxing performances in lackluster romantic comedies (except Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, which I continue to like). Who knows, maybe he wanted to work with Linklater for the third time. But Danny Buck is a very much not a movie star type of lawyer to play. Matt had chosen his previous screen attorneys the way an above-the-line actors are supposed to: you either want to be the guy who starts off heroic and ends up heroic, making time for a little heroism in between (A Time to KillAmistad), or the venal guy whose journey requires him to find the hero within (The Lincoln LawyerToy Story–Which Does Not Star McConaughey). Maybe–MAYBE–you might want to play a pure bad guy just to mix things up and show your range, as Michael Douglas did in Wall Street and Tom Cruise did in Collateral.

What you generally do not do is play the character who is on the morally correct side, but not on the audience’s side. It’s a thankless place to be; bureaucratic, really. In Bernie, the town, and the audience, generally realize that the protagonist is guilty, but they don’t want him to be punished regardless. The narrative supports an application of the Texas Defense; i.e., She Needed Killin’. So Danny Buck is right to prosecute Bernie, and he may even be right to believe that the murder was premeditated, but almost everybody is rooting against him. It’s unusual for a big star to put himself in this position–stars are big on having the audience love them–so I have to give McConaughey one of my remaining Finch points for doing it.

Epilogue. The greatest tragedy of our times is that McConaughey was not cast in the greatest legal drama of our times (warning: before you claim that this searing masterpiece [starts at the :31 mark] is wildly offensive, please note that it is wildly offensive):

L’Chaim, fatasses.

Twitter: @Buttockus