Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Counselor

“The Counselor” is not only the title of Ridley Scott’s new film but the only name by which Michael Fassbender’s character is ever addressed.

He’s a wealthy lawyer whose greed leads him to what he intends to be a one-time-only dealing in contraband that goes horribly wrong, running him afoul of a remorseless Mexican drug cartel. It’s a suspense thriller without suspense or thrills, a sure and slow (two hour-long) descent into a demimonde of blackmail and beheadings, with no way out and only horrific thoughts to occupy one’s mind before meeting one’s equally horrific doom. 

Scott has compiled a star-studded cast – besides Fassbender, there’s Penelope Cruz as his girlfriend, Javier Bardem as his partner on the abortive deal, Cameron Diaz as Bardem’s canny paramour, and Brad Pitt (back from solving slavery in “12 Years”) as their clandestine contact. (It’s the sort of picture where a small part is as likely to be filled by Rosie Perez or Ruben Blades as by a no-name.) And, though it’s quickly become chic to trash the movie, there are some great moments, including Diaz’s description of the beauty and sexuality of watching her cheetahs chase down and kill jackrabbits, several new and interesting ways to sever the jugular, and a terrific scene in which Fassbender, at the end of his rope, is delivered a CD-ROM with the word “HOLA!” written on it, and knows his fate is sealed (a lesser director would have played the CD). Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the script, delivers a few laugh-out-loud lines of pitch-black gallows humor.

But too often, McCarthy’s dialogue devolves into faux-deep bilingual musings that at times reach absurd levels of airlessness and attenuation. These aren’t real people talking to one another; they’re McCarthy talking to himself. He keeps human emotion at an icy remove for most of the runtime, then tries to eat his cake at the end, by which time we’re fully uninvested. Is this Fassbender’s first bad performance? Maybe, or maybe nobody could survive a line like, “Yes, damn you!” and a fake tear that looks like it was induced by an onion. Meanwhile, Diaz’s idea of erudition seems to involve pronouncing each of her t’s for a full second. And seeing Bardem and Cruz will only kindle memories of far superior films such as “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”

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