“The Counselor” is full of chatty criminals informing its lead character (Michael Fassbender) of the potential pitfalls attached to a big drug deal in which he’s a principal.
These advisers are not just highly loquacious – stopping this crime drama’s momentum to deliver big hunks of dialogue – but prophetic. Predictions about what might go awry for Fassbender’s character, an El Paso attorney referred to simply as Counselor, often come to pass. Thus, a momentum-free film also divests itself of intrigue.
It’s almost true to say “The Counselor,” directed by Ridley Scott from an original screenplay by author Cormac McCarthy (“No Country for Old Men”), contains no surprises. But a scene with Cameron Diaz surprises in content and in the willingness of an actress of her stature to participate in it.
Diaz plays Malkina, the eccentrically adorned (gold tooth, cheetah-print tattoo) and habited (she keeps real cheetahs) companion of club owner Reiner (Javier Bardem), the Counselor’s drug-deal partner.
Malkina engages in a sexual activity so adventurous, unlikely and specific that it sears itself into viewers’ brains.
Wait a day after seeing “The Counselor.” Then consider the movie. The Diaz scene will likely be your lone takeaway. Even the film’s elaborately staged acts of violence elicit shrugs in comparison.
Remember a dozen years ago, when one could not think of Diaz without summoning the “hair gel” scene in “There’s Something About Mary”? “The Counselor” makes you yearn for such innocent days.
“Counselor” often evokes past films because of its cast’s connections to its director and screenwriter. Brad Pitt’s long-haired drug middleman Westray in “Counselor” could be the grown-up version of the petty thief he played in his star-making turn in Scott’s “Thelma & Louise.”
Bardem’s spiky hairdo in “Counselor” evokes, in its incongruity, his shag from “No Country,” a film based on a McCarthy book. Fassbender played a cyborg in Scott’s “Prometheus,” and Penélope Cruz, who here plays Counselor’s fiancée, was in “All the Pretty Horses,” based on McCarthy’s novel.
All those films are better than “The Counselor.” Even “Prometheus” and “Horses,” though it’s tough to recall much about Cruz’s character.
It’s frankly hard to recall who she’s playing in “Counselor,” apart from a symbol of what Counselor risks by engaging in high-stakes border drug running.
An early bedroom scene between Counselor and his fiancée establishes him as a man worthy of affection and one who has something tangible to lose. Fassbender brings to this scene an easy charm and great virility. You can see why Cruz’s character would love this guy, who is sexy and a bit dangerous, but also devoted.
But Cruz hardly appears after this, and we never get a sense of her character’s past or feelings about Counselor’s criminal endeavors.
The charisma Fassbender oozes in early scenes turns to sweat and desperation when Counselor’s misdeeds catch up to him. It’s not Fassbender’s fault, but Counselor becomes tiresome in his inability to heed warnings.
Westray warned him explicitly not to get involved in the drug deal. Perhaps that warning became lost in all of Pitt’s lip-licking. Pitt appears to have trouble getting his mouth around the mounds of cautionary dialogue McCarthy has written for his character to deliver to Counselor.
“I have seen it all, and it’s all (expletive),” Westray tells Counselor, thus summing up his message and this film’s grim worldview.
“No Country” also took place partly on the border and was convinced of the inherent cruelty of humans. But the Coen brothers’ direction rendered that Southwest-shot film elegantly austere and haunting.
El Paso might as well be anywhere by the looks of “The Counselor,” which was shot mostly in London and Spain. The film’s parade of luxury convertibles and hotels seems rather rarefied for a gritty border city. As in most Scott films, the sun shines only tacitly, and there’s something white, if not also billowing, in every frame.
The out-of-place feel is almost worth it, though, because it takes us to Reiner’s tacky “Scarface”-esque mansion and to the shock-haired man himself. Bardem’s monologues are as chunky as everyone else’s, but his voice is mellifluous, his manner wry and his delivery smooth. Reiner offers honest analysis of the risks Counselor faces, and of his own personal flaws.
Reiner is worried that Malkina, who is exciting and challenging and happy to spend his money, might be his demise. He likes smart women, Reiner says, but it’s been an expensive habit.
Trouble is, Diaz never seems particularly smart. Someone smart would be subtler. Diaz goes full, colorful bad girl throughout, her performance all black eyeliner and surface.
She comes off as a teenager trying to prove how adult she is rather than as the veteran underworld denizen Malkina is supposed to be. Diaz’s delivery of Malkina’s appointed dialogue chunk is disastrous.
But Diaz’s performance will be remembered because of the aforementioned sex scene – a scene so potentially reputation-damaging it usually would be undertaken by an unknown, or someone intent on winning notice in Hollywood. Sharon Stone, for instance, was making little career headway before “Basic Instinct.”
For Diaz, an A-lister and one-time Oscar nominee (“Being John Malkovich”), such a scene seems a highly provocative misstep.
The greater missteps, though, are McCarthy’s, in trying to do too much with his screenplay. He created colorful characters ripe for a heist movie, but then robbed them of any sense of fun by loading them with dialogue better suited to his deliberately paced novels.
“The Counselor” shows that some authors should write directly for the screen and others are better off adapted.
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt
Director: Ridley Scott
Rated R (graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language)