"THE LINCOLN LAWYER" — ★★ — Matthew McConaughey, John Leguizamo, Ryan Phillippe, William H. Macy, Marisa Tomei; rated R (violence, sexual content and language); in general release

Matthew McConaughey has over the years gone from an actor most everyone enjoyed seeing in films like "Dazed and Confused" and "A Time to Kill" to a guy who takes his shirt off in bad romantic comedies like "Fool's Gold."

In "The Lincoln Lawyer," McConaughey once again takes off his shirt, but only for a minute. I'm happy to report that he spends most of his time acting, while clothed. The story, based on the Michael Connelly novel, grows increasingly far-fetched — at times it plays like a very expensive pilot for a TV series, maybe a "Young Barnaby Jones" or something.

But McConaughey is obviously having a grand old time playing Mick Haller, the wheeler-dealer lawyer who often finds inspiration in a bottle and relies more on street smarts than whatever he learned in law school.

Whether he's outmaneuvering the police, guilty clients or the system itself, Haller relishes escaping from the corners he's painted himself into, and it's fun to watch McConaughey portray that, particularly when it comes to showing higher-paid, better-dressed attorneys what a little creative thinking can accomplish.

Haller, with the help of bail bondsman Val (John Leguizamo), lands a high-profile case — defending spoiled rich kid Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), who is accused of rape and attempted murder. Roulet, like most defendants, claims he didn't do it. Frank Levin (William H. Macy), Haller's longtime investigator, isn't so sure.

Despite knowing the ins and outs of the legal system, Haller lives a rather low-rent life. He lives in a glorified shotgun house and his office is the back of a car (note title), which is driven by his chauffer Earl (Laurence Mason). We learn that Haller once lost his license but not why; drinking is hinted at (and practiced). His clients include bikers, with whom he conducts business on the side of the road.

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It's an odd bunch, the legal set in this movie. Haller often runs into his ex-wife Maggie (Marisa Tomei), a prosecutor, with whom he has a daughter. When you hear the phrase "legal fraternity," you don't necessarily think of a group of lawyers who go out for beers all the time after work, but that seems to be how these folks operate.

The more Haller learns about Roulet the less he likes his case, and he begins to question an earlier case that resulted in his client Jesus Martinez (Michael Pena) being convicted of a murder it's starting to look like he didn't commit.

The task for director Brad Furman is to tie all of the loose ends up with some legal wizardry on the part of Haller. As you might expect, he does, but not particularly convincingly, and a little extra melodrama is thrown in for no good reason, as well. Still, it's encouraging to see McConaughey interact with other characters instead of just his abs. He is an entertaining actor, or can be. He is here, when the story doesn't get in the way. Unfortunately, that's often.

"The Lincoln Lawyer" is rated R for violence, sexual content and language; running time: 119 minutes.

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