and sometimes poetry

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) | Review by Mark Leidner

You can literally smell the cheap glue holding together the pages of the mass market paperback from which The Lincoln Lawyer was adapted. You can smell the airport bookstore in which thousands of upwardly mobile ants of capitalism purchased it, desperate to inexpensively distract themselves from the emptiness of endless, meaningless travel. Meeting Hannah in the food court of the Hampshire Mall before the movie, I immediately sensed disillusionment emanating from her demeanor. Something to do with school, or money, or work had piled up in her mind and was bearing down when she  she looked up at me and said, “It’s all a scam.” Then she listed off everything in her life that had been beating her down, and it was not a vain whine, but a true and tragic perception, and while I felt nothing but empathy as her litany intensified, I decided it nobler to risk offense by challenging her doom-warble than to let it run on unchecked, malingering through her mind like a vile river, tainting all the beautiful parts, so I interrupted her mid-sentence by slamming my fist on the table, “Snap out of it!” Some heavily-pierced teenagers turned to look at us, as did the overweight security guard with his elbow on the ATM, as did the Mexican mother in a black hoodie bouncing an infant on her hip, as did the white slave behind the glass at Subway. “Not everything is a scam, Hannah,” and as the words came out of my mouth I wondered if I believed them. “Friendship isn’t a scam.” I gestured to the surrounding mall. “This isn’t.” I touched my heart. “Love isn’t a scam.” I held my arms out wide. “Family isn’t.” Then I paused and tried to summon into my face everything I’ve learned about acting from the 27 movies I have seen in the theater since last November. I stared into Hannah’s eyes. “Your soul isn’t a scam.”

Here Hannah laughed—barely—which is always enough for me. Half an hour later we were seated, relaxed, ready to be drawn into the Los Angelesy glow of The Lincoln Lawyer. Matthew McConaughey reprises his wily Southern lawyer role from A Time to Kill, which is what you’ll want to have, and about all you’ll accomplish, by buying a ticket. There are two okay things about the movie. Cast and concept. No one is a bad actor, and the legal finger trap at the center of the plot is mildly clever. But Brad Furman’s direction is strictly by the numbers. Remember when Danny Boyle used his camera in crazy ways to make James Franco’s one-scene battle with mortality feel miraculously expansive and multi-dimensional? This is like the opposite of that—a great cast with lots of plot twists and locations filmed through such a flat, lifeless lens that nothing at all appears to happen. The script is equally dead on arrival. I wish I was a two-bit gangster so I could corner screenwriter John Romano in the alleyway behind Hollywood and say, “You wanna write a courtroom drama, Johnny?” Romano would nod. “You know what makes a good courtroom drama?” He would shake his head. “Verbal sparks.” And here I would punch him hard in the gut. He’d double over and his fedora would fall off. I’d pick it up, dust it off, then throw it at him and say, “As in you ain’t got any.”  At this point he would struggle to stand upright and shout, “You poets, you don’t know what it’s like to write under the gun we write under! They’re throwing literally thousands of dollars at us! Real money!” And I would just keep walking, not looking back, but muttering over my shoulder, “If you can’t take the heat, Johnny, stay outta the pictures.”

Romano’s flaccid screenplay and Furman’s sloppy, castrated direction are like jury tampering and attorney-client conflicts of interest motivating the Your Honor of my suspended disbelief to throw his hands up by the middle of the first act and declare a cinematic mistrial. Go back to film school, you hacks! Or wherever it is people go to learn about form. After the movie Hannah and I attempted to restore some semblance of respect for ourselves by strolling around the mostly shuttered-up mall, past the empty Bath & Body Works, past the GNC with towers of protein supplements stacked outside, past the two adjacent mani-pedi salons sans customers, home to two different clans of Koreans eying us grimly from within, past the combined Verizon and WE BUY GOLD kiosk; and we talked about how The Lincoln Lawyer represents the kind of plodding narrative young writers so often reject in favor of experimentation, hold up as straw men in order to flagellate convention in “lyric essays” chic journals publish by the bushel, shrilly decrying the scam of realism, its pat, capitalistic parables, its edification of consumption, objectification, imperialism—objection! Realism isn’t what is codified. It’s like the universe—always expanding—by definition. And its fulfillment necessitates our infinite gymnasium of experimentation and invention. Airport fiction and its filmic correlatives are just the bathwater, baby. As in don’t throw yourself out with it. If you decided to become an atheist because all the Christians you ever met were ignorant, angry, and warlike, you would still be a fool. How many self-proclaimed experimental writers make the same mistake. The defense (never) rests.

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