THE COUNSELOR: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, directed by Ridley Scott (111 min.)
Movies like The Counselor are the reason I don’t gamble on sports.
If you tell me Ridley Scott is directing a crime drama starring Michael Fassbender, that may be all I need to be sold. If you continue, telling me the film is about the drug trade at the Texas border and stars Javier Bardem as a wild and colorful drug kingpin, I may begin to salivate a little. If you carry on even further and tell me this film is not only directed by Ridley Scott, but written by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy, the same man responsible for transcendent Texas crime novels like No Country for Old Men and Blood Meridian, I would say there is no more of a sure thing in cinema this year. I would place all bets on this very film being one of the best of 2013. But when it’s a sure thing, as it is in sports, there’s always the outside possibility it may wind up being a horrible, abject failure.
The Counselor is a baffling misfire on just about every level from not only some of the finest actors working today, but a legendary director and one of the greatest living American authors. This fails in three artistic disciplines, but at least the costume designer was able to show off a little. The Counselor takes one of the simplest stories, about a lawyer in over his head trying to pull off a drug deal, and turns it into one of the most convoluted, confusing, aimless narrative calamities I can remember. Not to mention the fact that it’s just terribly boring.
Michael Fassbender, one of my favorite actors, plays the counselor himself. That is his only name throughout the film. This El Paso lawyer, who has enough money to drive a Bentley, wear designer clothing, and fly all the way to Amsterdam to buy a diamond for his fiancée (Penelope Cruz, aloof and sparely used), wants to pull off a one-time drug deal with his… friend?... old client?... Reiner, played by Javier Bardem. Even though the counselor appears to be a millionaire? But how did he get to be so wealthy being a criminal lawyer in El Paso if we are to believe he is unfamiliar with the criminal underworld? That doesn’t fit together, but this illogical characterization becomes par for the course as we meander through this murky tale. We never know much about the counselor, even though there are opportunities to learn things along the way. Instead, those opportunities are quickly shut down so we can move on to the next muddled plot point.
Bardem plays Reiner with spiky hair, loud clothes, an orange face, and very little tangible personality. His girlfriend, Malkina, is played by Cameron Diaz and she appears to be enjoying her seedy character at least. Oh and she has pet cheetahs for no real reason. Anyway, let’s move on. Reiner warns the counselor that getting in on a deal is a bad idea, but he ignores the warning. He also ignores the warning of money man Westray, played by Brad Pitt who apparently just wants to wear antique Western attire and act goofy. Everyone warns the counselor against this business venture, but he goes through with it anyway and, wouldn’t you know it, everything goes awry. What exactly goes awry is a little confusing, because nameless people with no interesting traits steal the drugs from these other people who we don’t really know by decapitating this biker kid whose mom (Rosie Perez) is in prison and… oh forget it.
There is a lot of talking in The Counselor. A lot. Dialogue goes on and on, but what is so baffling is the fact that nobody is saying anything to move any part of the film forward. There are countless conversations about sex. Characters talk about sex, talk about the other sex and their sex drives, talk about talking about sex, have sex, and have sex with a car. And none of it is very sexy. It’s as if McCarthy’s idea of adding eroticism and mystery into the story is to have characters discuss it for no good reason. And the sex with the car bit is, just, dumb. Even Bardem’s Reiner doesn’t care for it in the film, so why should we? And the rest of the dialogue is just as aimless as all the juvenile sex talk. The film drags on and on with more characters talking and saying nothing until we are mercifully let go in the end.
A misfire on this level is arguably more impressive than if The Counselor would have been some great crime drama. With talent this deep on all sides of the camera, making a great film seems too easy. I am almost more impressed with the ineptitude on display here. If this film is anything, it is proof that there are no sure things in Hollywood. Even the most infallible film on paper can transform itself into a mess of epic proportions.
But wait, I want to point out the giant rolling metaphor that is the drug transport. This McGuffin in the picture, the barrels of heroin or whatever, is being transported in a sewage truck filled to the brim with fecal matter. The focus of the film is basically rolling around in a bunch of shit. That is about the only clever thing going for The Counselor.