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Counselor, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Pro Bonehead"
1 stars

In much the same way that truly great works of literature are often diminished when they make the journey from the page to the screen, important authors who have succumbed to the siren song of Hollywood have often found themselves stymied in their attempts to apply their particular prose stylings to the admittedly peculiar requirements of a typical screenplay. Great authors like William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer are just a few of the notables who have tried to make the leap over the years and while a couple of their efforts--such as Capote's work on "Beat the Devil" and Mailer's attempt to adapt his pulp novel "Tough Guys Don't Dance"--have gone on to become minor cult favorites, their efforts have inspired more cautionary tales than works of any lasting importance. ("Barton Fink," in which John Mahoney played a barely disguised Faulkner, is a more notable film than anything that Faulkner himself did for the screen.)

Among modern novelists, few are more highly acclaimed than Cormac McCarthy but his dealings with Hollywood have been uneven at best. On the one hand, his "No Country for Old Men" was an award-winning classic that found the Coen Brothers filtering McCarthy's distinct prose stylings through their own equally unique perspective to create a final product that genuinely felt as though it came from both of them. On the other, "All the Pretty Horses" and "The Road" were misfires that, despite their lofty ambitions, never quite figured out a way of how to transform McCarthy's material into interesting cinematic terms--too often, they felt like expensive book report dioramas that could replicate the words but not the music.

With "The Counselor," McCarthy has taken the bull by the horns and penned his first original screenplay and, no doubt based on the strength of that title page alone, managed to recruit both an A-list director in Ridley Scott and a top-flight cast including the likes of Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz and Javier Bardem. Too bad for all involved that they apparently didn't go beyond the title page before signing on because if they had, they might have realized that they were stepping into the kind of mess that is so bewildering that it takes a while for it to register just how disastrous it really is. Many viewers, cognizant of all the talented people on board, are likely to go through and think that maybe they are the ones at fault because there is no way that all of these smart and talented individuals could all be wrong, could they? Yes, they could and what makes the whole thing even more of a head-scratcher is the fact that virtually every single one of the problems with this blood-soaked bore springs from the weakness of McCarthy's contributions more than anything else.

Fassbender stars as a slick lawyer who is referred to throughout the film only as "Counselor," a gimmick that might have worked on the page but which on the screen has the unintended effect of making all of the characters sound as if they are doing their impressions of Robert De Niro in "Cape Fear" throughout. Anyway, although Counselor appears to have it all--a slick home, natty suits and a gorgeous fiancee in Laura (Penelope Cruz)--he is in the midst of money problems and so he decides to help facilitate, with the help of amiable drug kingpin Reiner (Bardem), the shipment of $20 million worth of cocaine from Colombia to Chicago. He has no plans to become permanently involved in the drug trade and has no particular opinion regarding the morality of his actions--his only concern is the potential profit he stands to make. His basic feeling seems to be that the drugs are going to get here one way or another and so why shouldn't he be the one to make money off of it this time around? After all, it isn't like anyone is going to get hurt or anything like that.

Of course, that is never the case and for Counselor, his best-laid plans begin to crumble when he does a simple favor for an imprisoned client (Rosie Perez) as a professional courtesy and this simple action--arguably the only non-self-serving act he performs in the course of the film--inadvertently leads to the disappearance of the shipment and the septic truck in which it has been hidden. Understandably, the drug cartel behind the shipment are slightly vexed by this turn of events and begin to suspect that Counselor is responsible because of that favor. Counselor wants to explain that this is all a big coincidence but when there is $20 million on the line, there is no such thing in their eyes. Counselor vainly struggles to get out of his predicament and keep Laura from harm with the aid of Reiner and easygoing middleman Westray (Pitt) but their efforts are in vain and the bodies soon begin stacking up in spectacularly gory fashion. (As Chekov never quite got around to saying, if a film introduces a fiendishly constructed motorized garrote in the first act, you can be sure that it will go off in the third.) While all of this is going on, Reiner's wildcat girlfriend Malkina (Diaz) appears to be carving out her own agenda amidst the chaos with a ruthlessness that puts everyone else to shame.

This all sounds vaguely compelling in theory but the problem with "The Counselor" isn't so much the story being told as it is the way that it is being told. Simply put, McCarthy's doesn't seem to have any idea of how to present his plot in cinematic terms. Instead of a cohesive narrative, he gives us a string of barely connected scenes in which the characters deliver archly written monologues that make them all sound as though they learned to talk through the works of Cormac McCarthy. On paper, these words may sing but unlike screenwriters like Tarantino and the Coens, they simply don't ring true to the ear. McCarthy is so in love with having his characters gabbing away that nearly an hour of screen time elapses before the plot, which has only been dealt with obliquely to this point, finally begins to kick into gear. For the next hour, the yak is mixed together with the yuk via a series of gory killings that have little impact because none of the characters getting whacked are of any interest or importance to us. Frankly, there are times when it feels as if the screenplay being used was actually a rough first draft that nobody had the nerve to ask McCarthy to rewrite at any point during the proceedings.

The film was directed by Ridley Scott, a filmmaker who belongs in the pantheon thanks to early masterpieces like "Alien" and "Blade Runner" but whose career of late has been somewhat uneven due to a series of projects ranging from such highs as "American Gangster" and "Prometheus" to outright failures like "A Good Year" and "Robin Hood." Although an immensely gifted director from a stylistic standpoint, he generally needs strong material to work with and he simply doesn't have that hear. As a result, he is forced to raid his bag of tricks in order to goose it and winds up with an approach that more closely resembles the work of his late brother Tony than anything else and which he never seems particularly comfortable with at any point in the proceedings. Sure, it looks good throughout but while Scott has made worse films over the years, it is hard to think of one more dramatically empty than this one--there is no genuine sense of heart, tension or excitement to be had. Basically, he is asking us to spend two hours watching a group of largely unpleasant people more or less getting exactly what they deserve and it gets very tedious very quickly.

Not even a cast filled with excellent actors is able to make much of anything out of McCarthy's words. Michael Fassbender is, as you may well know, one of the most electrifying actors working today but you wouldn't know it from his work here--he is unable to generate the slightest bit of interest or sympathy for his character's plight at any point in the proceedings. As the one unabashedly good and innocent (a.k.a doomed) thing in his life, Penelope Cruz is lovely as always but her role is such a cipher that it is hard to truly buy the love that Counselor has for her that is meant to drive the story. In smaller roles, Bardem and Pitt essentially play the flip sides of the scene-stealing characters they played in "No Country for Old Men" and "True Romance," respectively, but just float in and out of the proceedings without having much of an impact on them.

The most heroic performance in "The Counselor" is probably the one turned in by Diaz, partly because she has her character's cheerful amorality down pat and partly because, in one already infamous sequence involving her and a Ferrari, she performs what will no doubt go down as one of the most embarrassing sequences ever put on film (without going into detail, imagine the swimming pool sex scene in "Showgirls" as conceived and executed by the characters in the good version of "Crash") and still somehow manages to walk away from the project with a slight shred of her dignity remaining. Who knows, maybe after shooting this bit, she went up to Scott and McCarthy and asked "Is this scene really necessary?" Of course, the same could be said for virtually every other scene in the film as well. . .

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=25179&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/24/13 18:10:25
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User Comments

2/13/17 morris campbell bleak but honest 3 stars
11/19/15 Bill Grimmel A darkly evil concept - chilling. Loved Natalie Dormer's cameo. 4 stars
9/13/15 Kelly Captions of the Spanish Dialog would've helped I think. 4 stars
8/12/14 Lawrence James Excellent film; but not for simpletons. Weakness? Fassbender delivered flat lines. 5 stars
2/26/14 Langano Meaningless film with even more meaningless dialogue. 2 stars
11/24/13 Leonard Shelby Scary. Made my blood run cold. 5 stars
11/22/13 josephine Terrible Film. Just terrible 1 stars
11/11/13 David Wolk Good review. The Counselor is not a formula; really exposes the underbelly of violence... 5 stars
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