No stars (turkey)
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic
Rating: R, for graphic violence, grisly images, profanity and strong sexual content
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
Cormac McCarthy apparently felt that 2009’s big-screen adaptation of his novel “The Road” wasn’t sufficiently bleak, violent or morally depraved, so he upped his game with the original screenplay for this glossy bit of rubbish.
Rarely have so many A-list stars been involved in such a lamentable waste of time.
“The Counselor” isn’t merely set in a world of abominable behavior; McCarthy’s characters are cheerfully pragmatic about it. No act too vile to contemplate? They don’t merely contemplate; they discuss barbarism with the thoughtful ease of two fellows comparing cigar brands in a gentlemen’s club. Then, having laboriously exhausted the subject, director Ridley Scott ensures that we’ll eventually get to watch each degenerate act.
There’s nobody to like in this film; indeed, it’s difficult to even understand most of the characters who populate this deadly dull study of ill-advised acts and their horrible consequences. Everybody is morally compromised at best, or sociopathic, or indifferently brutal. Everybody except the token innocent, that is, who may as well be wearing a sign that reads “Sacrificial Lamb.”
Mind you, a roster of degenerates isn’t necessarily bad in and of itself; Quentin Tarantino has a way of extracting wonderfully dark entertainment from the vicious swine who inhabit, say, “Pulp Fiction” or “Inglourious Basterds.” But that’s precisely the point: Tarantino characters are engaging for the way they revel in their bad behavior, whereas the increasingly tiresome players in this drama give new meaning to the word “boring.”
And goodness, how they talk. Talk, talk, talk … most of them trying to impress our title character — his given name never revealed — with their deeply philosophical, even poetic views on the nature and consequences of vice. They all sound like frustrated university English professors.
Our “hero” invariably stands, blank-faced, during all these exchanges, asking moronic questions that encourage the continuance of each tedious conversation. He demonstrates the intelligence and perceptive savvy of a 5-year-old child, which makes one wonder how he has been able to curry favor, at least initially, with so many upper-echelon bad guys.
I knew we were in trouble, early on, when The Counselor — as everybody calls him — endures a lengthy discussion on the nature and imperfections of diamonds: a didactic sermon that quickly devolves into the dullest lecture imaginable. It goes on forever. Does it have anything to do with what follows? Is this diamond merchant a key character, and will we see him again? Is the diamond itself, which The Counselor eventually purchases, somehow significant? Nope, nope and nope.
Granted, this microscopically flawed gem foreshadows an ongoing theme of flawed behavior, and particularly the rather sexist notion, offered (at tedious length) by Reiner (Javier Bardem), that all women prefer imperfect men. But that point is obvious long before this interminable scene concludes … and it’s merely the first of numerous interminable scenes.
Scott opens his film with The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) in bed with his lover, Laura (Penélope Cruz): also an oddly protracted sequence intended to convey playful intimacy, which somehow misses that mark and slides toward vulgarity. Maybe it’s the smug look on Fassbender’s face, which clashes with Cruz’s gently affectionate smile.
This is an early indication of the degree to which Fassbender, generally a much better actor, swans through much of this film with expressions and body language that seem a little bit off, if not downright wrong. He simply doesn’t work as a character.
Anyway, for reasons we never learn, The Counselor has gotten himself into deep financial doo-doo. He therefore embarks on two foolhardy plans: to open a nightclub in partnership with Reiner, a decadent entrepreneur with connections to The Wrong Sort of People. Worse yet, this scheme will be financed — and The Counselor’s money problems “solved” — by his involvement with a massive drug shipment from Mexico to the States.
Everybody warns The Counselor not to do this, not to take this step, because Actions Have Consequences. Reiner warns him. At length. Westray (Brad Pitt), the middleman in this proposed arrangement, also warns him. At greater length. The Counselor smiles blandly, asking stupid questions and making brainless observations, then does it anyway.
We can’t help wondering how our protagonist is allowed to participate in this $20 million drug deal. What’s his buy-in? Why is he taken at face value by off-camera drug barons who obviously would be suspicious of such a dumb neophyte?
Actually, that’s the major problem with this screenplay. We know nothing about our title character. Is he an essentially good man making one ghastly mistake, or a longtime sleaze who deserves what comes next? How has he gotten to know these people? Why does he seem to represent only shady individuals, such as Ruth, the tough felon played with almost comical prison ’tude by Rosie Perez?
It’s like this guy parachutes into this storyline, no identity or background given, and then does stuff simply because The Script Says So.
Scott is equally clumsy with respect to logging key events. There’s no sense of time in this mess. Do days pass? Weeks? When, precisely, does The Counselor spring Ruth’s adult son from jail, thus allowing this kid to meet his destiny and set up the catastrophe that ruins everything?
Much is made, as well, of the drug shipment cleverly concealed within a truck of liquid waste: a truck that gets hijacked not just once, but twice, ultimately winding up under the control of … who? Do we care?
Not in the least.
We do know that the initial double-cross is orchestrated by Reiner’s girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), a brilliant sociopath who delights in destroying people: an act that she regards as an erotic high. She identifies with Reiner’s two pet leopards, and the athletic grace with which they chase down prey; she even has leopard-style spots tattooed on her back. It’s an intriguing role for Diaz, but — again — Malkina remains a cipher, despite one fleeting remark regarding her childhood.
Malkina certainly is the most interesting character in this morass, but that’s damning with very faint praise.
Pitt, alternatively, is the most interesting actor: the only one who puts just the right spin on his performance. He looks and behaves like the cautious, slightly mocking type who’d be found in such circumstances, who knows that the odds are certain to catch up with him, but — like an addicted gambler — can’t walk away from the table.
The production values are as dull as McCarthy’s script. Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is washed out and lifeless, and he doesn’t do anything interesting with interiors that range from seamy to opulent. Daniel Pemberton’s tuneless score is actually irritating … but not nearly as irritating as Scott’s reliance on tight close-ups, as these people chatter on, and on, and on.
Bad movies come in many flavors, but nothing is worse than being boring. Perpetually boring. Grindingly, offensively, sadistic-for-the-hell-of-it boring.
You’ve been warned.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com