Despite star power, 'The Counselor' a dull, pretentious morality play
Published: Friday, October 25, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 24, 2013 at 2:48 p.m.
Sometimes even geniuses fall short.
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem
The genius in question here is the novelist Cormac McCarthy, winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and the man behind the script for “The Counselor.” McCarthy's novels have been in vogue in Hollywood for a while now; “All The Pretty Horses,” “The Road” and “No Country for Old Men” were all adapted into movies, and the latter took home an Academy Award for Best Picture. Sadly, McCarthy's first attempt at a screenplay is incoherent and stifling dull, and not even a cast chock full of Oscar winners and nominees can save “The Counselor” from being a pretentious dud.
Trying to sum up the narrative of “The Counselor” is a maddening task because while there's a lot that happens, there's not a lot that actually happens. Which is to say there are a lot of events that occur (often with seemingly little relation to one another), but that they don't add up to anything. There's sort of an overarching plot involving the nameless Counselor (Michael Fassbender) and his ill-fated attempt at a drug deal involving a number of shady characters, but there are so many pointless digressions that the pacing is a complete mess.
Example: The movie begins with an entirely too long scene of The Counselor in bed with his wife, Laura (Penelope Cruz). The dialogue is awkward and decidedly not erotic, and the scene serves no purpose except to apparently have Cruz talk about being touched “down there” and fake an orgasm. Later on there's a similar scene in which The Counselor's business partner Reiner (Javier Bardem) describes his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) literally having sex with a car. The scene is hilarious, but unintentionally so, and it completely clashes with the tone of the rest of the movie. So why is it there? Only McCarthy knows.
Furthermore, we don't really care about what happens to The Counselor or his associates because he's vaguely defined and most of the rest are miserable bores. Despite Fassbender's formidable efforts, we get no real insight into The Counselor's personality, and when the proverbial matter hits the proverbial fan, he spends most of his time asking “What should I do?” instead of DOING something. There's a brief mention that he might have some money trouble, though that seems unlikely since he travels all the way to Amsterdam to buy a massive diamond for Laura. A couple of desperately on-the-nose conversations suggest there's a lesson about greed to be learned, but for that lesson to work we'd have to care about The Counselor's fate, which we don't.
The rest of the cast is much of the same; they're all very good and game for their parts, but there's just not a lot of substance in the script. And when your supporting cast includes Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt, it's downright criminal to not give them worthwhile material. The one exception is Diaz, who gets to shed her comic persona and dig deep into a rich vein of multi-faceted evil. It's the sole bright spot (figuratively speaking; she does some pretty dark deeds) in this black hole of a movie. Watching her cold eyes and mirthless smile as she toys with her prey is enough to bring the movie to life in fits and starts.
The film's remaining pleasures are few. The cinematography is solid, evoking the dusty, lawless border areas McCarthy knows so well, and there are a couple of shockingly brutal sequences that will briefly revive you from your stupor. But overall, the best counsel one can give regarding “The Counselor” is to go see something else.
For more of Rob Ryan's takes on movies, see his blog at projections.blogs.gainesville.com.