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The Counselor | Review

Court Appointed: Scott’s Grand Mal Misfire

Ridley Scott The Counselor PosterArriving with an unceremonious thud, Ridley Scott’s latest effort, The Counselor, a much anticipated adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s debut screenplay, sets the standard for greatest cinematic disappointment of the year, thus far. A cavalcade of notables scurry in front of and behind the camera in this defatigable exercise that hurls philosophical monologues and violent actions in equal pokerfaced measure, obviously unaware that it sinks miserably under the weight of its own lofty pretensions, attempting amateurishly to explore the elusive comparison of self-preservation versus an innate human instinct for greed.

A respected lawyer known as the Counselor (Michael Fassbender) simultaneously falls in love with a sexy woman (Penelope Cruz) and enters into an illegal business deal involving drugs, and, of course, a large amount of money. He’s ushered into the shady deal by his friend Reiner (Javier Bardem), a woman hungry hedonist who has brought his new love interest, Malika (Cameron Diaz) in on the deal, which also includes opening a new night club with the Counselor. A meeting with middle man Westray (Brad Pitt) advises the Counselor to have a plan B in case things go wrong, which, due to a complicated coincidence involving the son of one of the Counselor’s clients, is exactly what happens.

A sparkling diamond of a cast graces the Savages inspired poster art, and just as Bruno Ganz’s diamond dealer waxes eloquently about a trade that specializes in imperfections, one can’t help but revisit this metaphoric monologue in relation to the glaring imperfection at the heart of The Counselor—Cameron Diaz. Associated with the cheetahs she owns, (a pair of highly advanced killing machines she trots out to the middle of the dessert with Bardem so they may observe them chase and kill jackrabbits while they sip martinis in a sequence that looks rather like a car commercial) she’s supposed to be a highly intelligent and ruthless predator, a black hole that nastily masticates all the supporting players unlucky enough to be in her wake. Despite a spotted cheetah tattoo and nifty hairdo, she’s more reptilian than feline. However, Diaz can’t seem to carry this predatory malevolent character off with any sort of aplomb, and while the script, which seems written only as a series of scenes built around or building up to cutting one-liners, nearly every sequence sees the actress severely overdoing it, uttering whole passages of belabored dialogue that are of the caliber we can only hope will be parodied later. A bizarre exchange with Cruz has her muttering flatly, “What a world!”

Just as we rush breathlessly from one overly talkative sequence to another (and without significant or important details), there are a slew of scenes that could have been excised completely, including Diaz’s visit to a priest (Edgar Ramirez) just to waste his time and ours by attempting to titillate him in the confession booth. Worse, Scott’s got a controversy courting coup de grace on his hands here, one that seems at home in some seedy Verhoeven title, featuring Diaz spread-eagle herself on the windshield of a yellow Ferrari California while she literally fucks the car. It’s sure to have tongues wagging and will no doubt be a the film’s infamous calling card, but it’s presented ridiculously, and reduces Malika’s vulgarity by using her vagina to make her the butt of a joke. Several descriptors Bardem’s character uses to describe the incident recalls the face hugger from Scott’s Alien. We get it—Malika’s got reverence for neither cars nor religion.

Beginning with an opening sequence that equates great sex as love (we’re never given any indication of any other kind of connection between Fassbender and Cruz) in a relationship that’s every bit as idiotically performed as De France and Dujardin in this year’s Mobius, coincidences and revelations are revealed as if we’ve never seen anything remotely like it before. For a film that tries to depend heavily on sexuality, it certainly isn’t very sexy. True, there’s a small amount of pleasure Scott and McCarthy land upon, particularly in one of the film’s most satisfying sequences involving Fassbender and jailed client Rosie Perez. But the entertainment is administered in meager doses, with Bardem’s performance outperformed by his hairdo and Cruz locked into the tedious role of a lusty distressed damsel.

A drinking game could be developed around the indulgent use of the word ‘counselor,’ which Brad Pitt seems to utter with every gleeful snippet of sarcastic wisdom. But none of these people are actual characters, rather composites of stereotypes stapled together and Fassbender’s titular tool (who is required to shed tears on a surprising number of occasions) is no exception. Tiringly, nightmarish horrors are referenced in long conversations early on in the film, roaring into violent reality as the business deal sours, though less of a surprise since they’ve already been given a verbal test run.

The seedy underbelly of drug trafficking is the world being explored here, so it seems fitting that such a shallow, insidious world, so heavily dependent on appearance, should reflect equally empty and soulless characters. But The Counselor falls victim to its own apathy. Early on in the film, in response to being judged as cold, Diaz retorts, “the truth has no temperature.” Great line, but the truth is, The Counselor is a colossal waste of (mostly) talented pretty people, revealed as mere puppets to over baked material, and perhaps evidence that great prose does not always translate into great screenplays.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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