Breaking bland – The Counselor review

TheCounselor1By Simon Miraudo
November 4, 2013

The Counselor has two water-cooler moments. The first is Cameron Diaz giving Javier Bardem a graphic, gynaecological display on the windshield of his car, and the second involves a heavily foreshadowed bolito; a truly gruesome strangulation device that cuts the carotid arteries on the way to fulfilling total decapitation. (I would warn against actually describing either of these scenes at the work water-cooler, of course, lest you find yourself interrogated by a Human Resources representative.)

Now, would you believe the movie containing both of those set pieces is a total bore? Because it is. Would you also believe it’s the first collaboration between director Ridley Scott and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy (penning his first feature screenplay)? Because it’s that too. Finally, would you believe that rather than Scott and McCarthy elevating a turgid project with their talents, they’re actually the primary causes of its crappiness? Because they are. The only thing more shocking than The Counselor‘s frequent head-poppings and Diaz’s acrobatic automobile display is how underwhelming this pedigreed crime thriller truly is.

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The feature follows the unnamed Counselor (a barely-there Michael Fassbender) as he tries to get in on a can’t-lose drug deal, only to discover there’s no such thing. His connection to the criminal underworld is the flamboyant Reiner (Bardem), who spends much of the flick warning him of the dangers inherent in his business. Reiner even confides in the Counselor that he’s uncertain of his own safety, fearing betrayal from his girlfriend, Malkina (Diaz), the Cheetah-collecting vixen with a Cronenbergian fetish for vehicular intercourse. But the Counselor is blinded by his hubris, or, perhaps, the giant diamond ring he’s purchased for his innocent girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz). He commits to the deal. It’s a decision he’ll come to regret almost immediately.

Alex Pappademas on the Grantland podcast ‘Do You Like Prince Movies’ described the recently-concluded Breaking Bad thusly: “It’s about a man who gets cancer, and it kills everyone else.” The Counselor follows a similar trajectory, though the cancer in its hero’s instance is greed (as, I suppose, it also was in Breaking Bad). When external – almost random – forces undo their best laid plans, the Counselor, Rainer, and middleman Westray (Brad Pitt) find themselves at the mercy of the omnipotent, unglimpsed money-lenders now shy $20 million. The Counselor wants to prove this disruption to their deal is simply due to a terrible coincidence. When it comes to coincidences though, Westray warns, “They’ve heard of them, they’ve just never seen one.”

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Scott and McCarthy are clearly not two great tastes that go great together (and I’m not even sure we can still describe late-era Ridley Scott as a ‘great taste’). They both attracted marquee talent, but not even the dueling bad-haircuts of Bardem and Pitt can make this thing pop. Scott underlines every moment as if he were marking a typo-ridden exam paper, and the completed picture feels like a humourless Coen Brothers pastiche (the very duo who brought McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men to life).

On his first ever script, McCarthy might be overthinking it. So many sequences are built around conversations in which someone asks someone else if they’ve heard of a joke, or if they’re familiar with a poet, or if they know the meaning of a certain Mexican word, and so on and so forth, before launching into a monologue illuminating the themes of the film. Since when has McCarthy been so insecure in his craftsmanship and characters that he doesn’t feel they’re enough to convey what he’s trying to say? Or is this Scott’s influence? The director is already sticking with scenes for several beats too long – a final disturbing and revelatory moment in particular – and drowning them in a soppy, orchestral score. Perhaps he demanded rewrites, for fear of having an ambiguous ending a’la No Country  or The Road. Don’t you know, Cormac? Ridley don’t play that.

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We can’t truly know what the screenwriting process involved. We can, however, evaluate the final product, and it’s so afraid of being convoluted it’s almost purely expositional, yet it’s not nearly afraid enough of being circuitous. The hubristic tragedy of the story is so plainly telegraphed and unimaginatively explored, one wonders what the point of The Counselor even is, besides an opportunity for famous actors to affiliate themselves with an acclaimed novelist (and vice versa). McCarthy usually has the unique knack for painting each of his creations in disparate, interesting shades; here, everyone talks like everyone else, with the exact same message-speak. It’s like he moved to Hollywood and turned into Kevin Smith.

The performances are, as one would expect, fine, though the usually-compelling Fassbender is trapped in an avatar for whom there is really nothing fascinating beneath the surface. Bardem and Pitt do well to not chew the scenery and still play oddballs, and it’s novel to see Cruz in the role of naïve ingénue, as opposed to crazy Spaniard (which, in fairness, is a mantle her husband, Bardem, has been happy to assume in recent years). Diaz, unfortunately, in perhaps the most significant part, is stilted and mannered; attempting to come across as threatening and cat-like and instead just seeming robotic. Her femme fatale inspires only laughter. Not the good kind. Malkina could have provided the necessary nuttiness to elevate the movie, or at least give it enough personality to make it truly feel like something special. The Counselor is, sadly, nut free.

2.5/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews.

The Counselor arrives in Australian cinemas November 7, 2013.

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