Thursday, October 24, 2013

A 'Counselor' badly in need of advice

A great pedigree can't save this scattered, mildly pretentious thriller.
Tell me you weren't looking forward to The Counselor, a thriller with a screenplay by novelist Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men), direction by the talented if variable Ridley Scott (Gladiator and Prometheus) and acting from a cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz.

That's the kind of pedigree that should excite moviegoers, especially those who are attracted to the spare toughness of McCarthy's worldview. In The Counselor -- McCarthy's first piece written solely for the screen -- the esteemed author creates a world in which toxic mixtures of greed and desperation reap heavy consequences and in which any display of naivety sets one up for an unimaginably dire fate.

The characters in The Counselor are surrounded by forces they can't control: Their only mistake lies in believing that a degree of control might be possible. When things go terribly wrong (as they must in a movie such as this) no amount of improvisation or bravado can spare the hapless. They're exposed for what they are: someone else's prey.

Contrary to its title, The Counselor isn't really about an individual; it's about systemic rot, most of it taking place in lavishly appointed environments where high-class consumption is the rule, much of it funded by money derived from the drug trade.

In The Counselor, drugs support the criminal upper class, an observation that seems a little tiresome for someone of McCarthy's stature. "Drugs again?" we ask ourselves, as we fight to stave off disappointment.

Fassbender plays a nameless attorney whose motivations are so sketchily presented, they're almost irrelevant. The Counselor feels as if his back is to the wall. He's helped a lot of criminals. Now, he wants to cash in by involving himself in a drug deal. He also wants to find a happily-ever-after situation with his wife, played by Cruz as the only character in the movie with any claim to innocence.

Fassbender's character deals with two associates. The wealthy Reiner (Bardem) is a genially sly man with an outrageous, blown-back hairstyle that make him look as if he just put his finger in a live electric socket. Reiner can be comical, but he warns the Counselor that deals such as the one he's contemplating tend to take on a life of their own. If everything sours, the Counselor won't have the slightest idea of how to cope. He'll be dangerously out of his depth.

The Counselor also meets with Pitt's Westray, a relaxed man with a fondness for a white cowboy hat. Westray also issues warnings to the Counselor. The easy-going Westray seems to understand that he may have pushed his luck too far. Perhaps he already should have abandoned crime, but he's playing things out, maybe even egging disaster on.

Diaz is cast in the movie's most mysterious role: She plays Malkina, a woman we first meet when she watches Reiner's pet leopards chasing down prey on an open plane. It doesn't take much by way of intuition to know that Malkina's all business and that when she does business, it will be bad business -- if not for herself, then for those she encounters.

In a bit of self-conscious boundary stretching we see Malkina having sex with Reiner's yellow, convertible sportscar. No, I'm not kidding. I won't describe exactly how this bizarre feat is accomplished. Know only that it involves Malkina doing a cheerleader-like split atop the car's windshield. Scott may be making a point in weirdly literal fashion: This woman gets off on material things.

The world of The Counselor is ripe with intrigue and abundant corruption, and yet, the movie can't be called a success.

To begin with Fassbender's character is never well-enough defined to hold the center of a movie. Bardem, so impressive as the lethal Anton Chigurh in the big-screen adaptation of McCarthy's No Country For Old Men, gives a performance that flirts with shtick, alternating comic exaggeration with a feeling that he briefly has returned to his senses, something like a jazz musician picking up the melody after a wild improvisational riff.

Diaz seems sufficiently jaded as a woman who strives to create a straight line between her intentions and her actions, even if those actions show up on the wrong side of the moral ledger.

And then there's the narrative itself. It takes an awfully long time for the story to lock in, and when it does, we watch less because we care about the outcome, but because we simply want to see the various chunks of story find a semblance of coherence. This is more a formal accomplishment than a deeply felt human one.

It's equally true that McCarthy's dialogue, though sometimes mordantly witty, carries the weight of pretension, so much so that by the movie's end, some of the characters (notably a crime lord played by Ruben Blades) begin to spell out the movie's harsh themes in an approach that's probably too clear, an example of literary obviousness that recursively articulates what we already know.

All of this makes for intermittently intriguing but only partially satisfying viewing experience, a movie in which adornment and opulence are conspicuously displayed as part of Scott's attempt to seduce us, and -- at times -- to show the gap between the upper classes of criminal life and the minions who serve them. We catch glimpses of the lumpen work force that keeps the drug wheels spinning, whether it comes to creatively executed assassinations or the drudgery of moving more product.

Scott and McCarthy put a lot on the table here, trying hard (too hard, probably) to add spice to a fairly routine story that, in its overall arc, looks as if it's trying to punish characters who have lived too large.

Scott and McCarthy have chosen a strange way to fail; their overly complex a story-telling approach makes things too difficult at the outset, and the proffered explanations for what we've been watching make the movie too easy in the end.

It sounds like an odd and perhaps even disrespectful thing to say about a McCarthy-written movie, but The Counselor could have used a rewrite.

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