THE COUNSELOR Review: Greed Is Not So Good
From classic Hollywood, Marilyn Monroe was simply known as “The Girl” in 1955’s The Seven Year Itch. From foreign films, 2002’s Hero cast Jet Li as “Nameless.” Spaghetti westerns from the 1960s offered us “The Man With No Name,” made most famous in the Clint Eastood/Sergio Leone Dollars Trilogy of films. B-movies of the 1980s gave us Rowdy Roddy Piper as “Nada” in 1988’s They Live!. And cult classics gave us “The Narrator” in 1999’s Fight Club.
More recently, fan-favorite Drive (2011) gave us Ryan Gosling as “Driver,” and even this year’s All Is Lost is led by Robert Redford as “Our Man.”
The absence of a traditional name for these characters (and many more like them) brings another facet of mystery to what is already brought to life onscreen. On the heels of Redford’s film comes another entry in this unique club.
Ridley Scott‘s The Counselor stars Michael Fassbender as the otherwise nameless Counselor, an attorney who, in the name of greed, gets involved in a major deal with a Mexican drug cartel. He is able to keep this one-big-score-and-never-do-it-again secret from his recently affianced Laura (Penelope Cruz) because (a) she’s remarkably old-fashioned, a woman of Catholic faith, and trusting of her beloved implicitly; and (b) one of his partners in crime is Reiner (Javier Bardem), a client who would require frequent visits anyway. So often do the two men meet, their significant others, Laura and Malkina (Cameron Diaz), get massages together. The third partner in the deal is Westray (Brad Pitt), whose relationship to Counselor, we assume, is similar. The deal goes south, though, when the large shipment of cocaine, which is sealed in a 55-gallon drum that is placed into a tanker truck that is otherwise filled with sewage, is stolen. The cartel, now without its shipment or its payment, is out for revenge.
Hmm. Well, you assume Counselor is Reiner and Westray’s counselor because Reiner and Westray always call Counseler “counselor.” Then again, I call all doctors “doctor” even though not all doctors are my doctor. So I suppose it’s possible that Counselor is not Reiner and Westray’s counselor but merely a counselor who prefers to be called “counselor” the way doctors prefer to be called “doctor.” And with that dizzying thought, I give you Exhibit A of the case against The Counselor: it’s a film so convoluted, it can’t even make its character relationships clear.
The confusion starts almost immediately. The meeting between Counselor and Reiner in the opening minutes of the film feels like it belongs at the start of Act II, like it’s a continuation of their past six conversations, which immediately loses the viewer. And where many films might feel like they start in the middle and then bring the larger picture to light over the course of the story, thus alleviating that what-did-I-miss worry, this never does. In fact, as the film progresses, the questions only multiply, ping-ponging between “What did I miss?” and “What does that mean?” and “Was that even necessary?”
Case in point for the necessity of a scene: the much ballyhooed moment with Diaz writhing on the hood … the windshield, really … of a car. It serves no purpose other than to titillate (distract?). It’s also a prime example of the film’s greater problem. Throughout it all, it feels like Scott lacks either faith or interest in the story, and instead tries to patch together something around a collection of set pieces. Scenes involving a cheetah chasing a jackrabbit, a church confessional, a high-speed motorcycle and a wire across the road, that car-top performance, and others all feel like they were there first, and everything else was poorly constructed to get from piece to piece. It’s not unlike pornography – figure out those money scenes and fill the gaps with whatever gets you by. Scott’s money scenes are great to view (especially the meticulousness of the motorcycle/wire scene), but they ultimately suffer at the hands of the bad story.
The characters aren’t much better. Other than Laura, whose goodness is better described as naiveté, there are no good guys – only bad guys and worse guys, and each fancies himself (or herself) some sort of armchair philosopher, prattling on about life and decisions and actions and consequences and other things, as if they believe their shrewdness in crime somehow translates to wisdom in life. Sadly, this isn’t American Idol; a big note at the end can’t save a rough performance.
As for performances, Fassbender is the best (for what that’s worth) and I like Pitt too, but Bardem and Cruz basically mail it in. As for Diaz, well, I like her a lot … in anything but this. Costume and make up (not her fault, I know) have her ready for her close-up on Real Housewives of the Cartel, particularly the faux nails and the thick, thick, thick mascara. Underneath that, she efforts to come across as icily ruthless, but instead seems perpetually irritated. And of all the great dime bag philosophers in the film, her delivery clangs the loudest as it falls to the floor.
The combined pedigree of the core five actors, director Scott, and writer Cormac McCarthy is impressive, including 13 Oscar nominations (with two wins) and a list of film resumé titles that range from 1979’s Alien to 2012’s Skyfall. With all of that talent, you would think the quality of this film would be off the charts. Well, it’s off the charts, alright … it just goes in the wrong direction.