‘The Counselor’ Wastes Talent Of Great Actors


Alas, poor Counselor, we know you all too well. The Counselor, written by top novelist Cormac McCarthy and directed by legend Ridley Scott, is a great disappointment. Before any action takes place, characters are forced to do speeches about their motivations, often ones that are essentially ludicrous. The best films show the audience motivation through the acting out of a few well-written words. This movie sounds like William Shakespeare focusing on, well, not much at all. Shakespeare wrote tragedies about kings, about those who had an impact. This movie focuses on a lawyer who goes one step over the line, and everything turns into disaster.

McCarthy sets this up in Shakespearean mode. There are major speeches, all sorts of hints for future disaster. When some of the characters give advice, I could almost recall Polonius’ speech in Hamlet. But, keeping in line with the Bard, what we get is Much Ado About Nothing. Great films usually have some subtlety as the plot goes on. There are no subtleties here at all. Great violence is prophesied, and that is what we get.

The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) is a somewhat successful attorney who decides to invest in a drug deal just once in order to make enough money to live above his current lifestyle. Just once. After all, he has a wonderful fiancée, Laura (Penélope Cruz), and he wants to give her everything her heart might desire for reasons that are a bit ludicrous. He decides to invest in a drug shipment with the nightclub owner whom he has served as attorney, Reiner (Javier Bardem). Although Reiner and his partner Westray (Brad Pitt) both spend considerable time warning him about problems when you get involved with drug dealers, he moves forward and helps arrange for a septic tank truck to bring cocaine from Mexico to Chicago.

Almost as soon as the film begins, he flies off to Amsterdam to buy a diamond ring for Laura. He meets with a diamond merchant (Bruno Ganz), who starts off the philosophy in a big way by saying that the secret of his life as a diamond buyer is looking for flaws. Although portentous, that portrayal is the one thing I remember as the most vivid in the film. I assume he went to Amsterdam so director Ridley Scott, who has done a lot of far better movies than this, could get a few nice camera shots. It could have been anywhere.

The deal falls through, and our protagonist’s life begins to collapse. He has to deal with Reiner’s crazy friend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) who has a couple of pet cheetahs. One of the few really exceptional scenes in the film has Malkina and Laura facing off.

Unfortunately, things do not work in the film. McCarthy, whose novels have won many awards (No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, The Road) is a dreadful screenwriter. Every possible move winds up being discussed in excruciating detail. The two drug dealers could be professors of philosophy. It is the Counselor, a basically silent partner, who winds up in trouble rather than the main players.

The acting is a mixed bag. Fassbender, an exceptional actor (I have already heard that his performance in the movie 12 Years a Slave, is remarkable), is almost passive. We never even learn his name. He is present solely to be a tragic hero. Bardem is, as usual, a charming villain, and his hair might contend for an award. Pitt is fun, although he overdoes the ticks and quirks of his character. Cruz is good in a role that is rather different for her, playing the sweet innocent. Cameron Diaz is way over the top, and she helps unbalance the film; she comes off as just too strong, too overbearing. A stronger protagonist would have worked far better, but Fassbender is shown as non-assertive.

The unfortunate thing about the movie is how it wasted the time of a lot of talented people. But they were paid for it. If you pay for this movie, you will be the sucker. After watching the film for what seemed like a day, I was thrilled to get out. Miss it.