Meet "The Counselor," An Inexplicable Waste Of Talent

Is Ridley Scott’s terrifically cast “The Counselor” the be all and end all of drug cartel pics? Yes, in that it will make you swear off drug cartel pics. It’s the worst kind of thriller, one that conveniently pairs a disinclination for actual human sentiment with a dearth of things to say, all the while spouting bits of faux-poetic wisdom that sound good but mean nothing. Its high-profile cast clearly has no idea what to make of the material, the end result making Oliver Stone’s underwhelming cartel film, “Savages,” seem like an all-time great. In short, “The Counselor” has problems.

Author Cormac McCarthy (“No Country For Old Men”) makes his screenwriting debut here, making a convincing case that 80 year-olds shouldn’t be making screenwriting debuts. While the Coen brothers’ adaptation of “No Country” was nothing short of a triumph, McCarthy proves to have no ear for screen dialogue, and the story he constructs around his one-dimensional characters is soapy at best, laughably campy at worst.

Michael Fassbender (“Prometheus”) stars as the titular counselor – we never learn his name – a lawyer who finds his way into the shady world of drug trafficking. As the film opens, he’s in bed with his girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), and the two share an extensive chat about love and sex that does little more than provoke eye rolls. Shortly thereafter, the counselor is lured into a drug deal by one of his clients, Reiner (Javier Bardem), a magnetic, spiky-haired entrepreneur.

Unfortunately for the counselor, Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz, looking like the spawn of Ellen Barkin and Kristin Chenoweth), is a conniving psychopath, obsessed with sex and… cheetahs. Yes. Cheetahs. She keeps two as pets, has a large cheetah tattoo on her back, and even uses her mascara to duplicate the look of the creature’s eyeline. Amidst a cast of bland characters, Malkina stands out, but not necessarily for the better. It’s a remarkably silly villain for an ostensibly serious, grounded movie, and Diaz doesn’t have the acting ability to come close to pulling it off.

Among the film’s five stars, Brad Pitt fares the best as the devil-may-care cowboy, Westray, who serves as the middleman between the counselor and Reiner. He gets the film’s most memorable scene – one of the most violent of the year – and seems to be aware of the screenplay’s tonal inconsistencies. He turns in a loose, fun performance that’s coincidentally reminiscent of his role in the Coen brothers’ “Burn After Reading,” and walks away with his movie star appeal intact.

But “The Counselor” does little to affirm Fassbender’s star power, as his performance is surprisingly undynamic. It doesn’t help that his character is at the center of many dialogue-oriented scenes that never seem to end, but Fassbender does nothing to soften the blow of the script’s shortcomings. He seems to be along for the ride – nothing more, nothing less.

Cormac McCarthy either isn’t aware that dialogue reads differently on the page that it does as spoken word, or doesn’t care, as his stilted monologues kill any momentum that the movie picks up in its second half. Some of the lines that he saddles his cast with are absolutely wretched, like watching a world-renowned gymnast do faceplant after faceplant.

Ridley Scott is an immensely talented director and even his misfires are usually worthwhile. Thusly, the pic becomes inherently more interesting when the plot picks up speed – and adds a few visceral thrills – but Scott seems inexplicably married to his writer and his cache of uninspired ideas. It ends up as one of his worst films to date.

I can’t imagine anyone craving a talky, tonally incoherent, sadistically violent drug pic, but here it is. At least Bardem continues to make the case that he doesn’t have a bad performance in him, even in a film as lackluster as this. “The Counselor” will find its audience because of its high pedigree, but viewers deserve much more than it has to offer – as does everyone involved. Move along. Nothing to see here.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: October 25, 2013
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: Cormac McCarthy
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt
MPAA Rating: R (for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language)