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Friday, December 20, 2013

The Counselor (sic)

So much talent, so much talent...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

The man known only as The Counselor (or, The Counsellor for those of us in countries who actually know how to spell) is already a respected and wildly successful lawyer but when he tries to make some extra cash on a seemingly simple drug trafficking deal, he soon finds himself in far deeper waters than he ever could have imagined.

What we thought

How's this for a recipe for an instantly guaranteed cinematic masterpiece: Take one of the world's most revered and beloved veteran filmmakers and get him to adapt the first all-original screen play by one of modern literature's most acclaimed authors, into a brutal but lyrical crime-drama populated with a sizzling hot and talented ensemble cast. This is pure cinematic alchemy that should, by all rights, result in a film that is destined to go down as one of the early 21st century's most spectacular masterpieces.

Well, here's the thing about alchemy, cinematic or otherwise – it's a bit of a tricky business that can go horribly, horribly wrong from even the tiniest, most seemingly insignificant of mistakes. The Counselor is comprised of nothing but solid-gold elements but somewhere in the mixing of said elements something went horribly, horribly wrong as instead of producing a 50 carat gem, we are instead left with a lone piece of stone-cold coal. The Counselor should have been a masterpiece, instead it's simply one of the year's most obnoxious, pretentious, pompous and flat out worst films.

For a start, the cast of the film basically do what they are generally very, very good at doing but, Fassbender aside, each of them end up looking like fun-house mirror versions of themselves. Brad Pitt is usually brilliant in the kind of enigmatic role he is called to play in the Counselor but his delivery here comes across like someone doing a shockingly bad Brad Pitt impression. Similarly, Javier Bardem is once again called on to bring the creepy magnetism of some of his best roles but his resulting performance is mostly just ridiculous.

Speaking of ridiculous though, no one beats Cameron Diaz is the sheer off-the-wall bonkers department. Ms. Diaz has never been the greatest of actors but if there is one thing she can always deliver at the drop of a hat is real, sexually-electrifying sultriness. I mean, have you seen The Mask? In the Counselor she is only really asked to do two things, with one of these things being her stock in trade and the other being the kind of villainy that is so broad that they might as well have given her a moustache to twirl. That she is laughably bad as a cartoon villain is both expected and not really her fault, but her sexy femme fatale act is so overdone that it goes straight past her usual sexiness to a pretty bad parody of what some deranged 14 year would consider sexy. Don't believe me? Just wait until you see the scene that features her becoming, um, intimate with a car.

With all of this, come to think of it, The Counselor could really have been one hell of a depraved, pitch-black comedy so it's a pity then that director Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise) and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy decided instead to play this seriously – and I mean seriously – straight.

It's unclear whether McCarthy simply hasn't managed to convert his mastery of the novel into an even competent level of screenwriting or if Ridley Scott just isn't at all compatible with McCarthy's idiosyncrasies in the way that the Coen brothers and John Hillcoat so obviously were when they adapted No Country for Old Men and The Road, respectively. What is clear though is that the film's script - or the delivery thereof - must surely rank as one of the year's worst.

The story the film is trying to tell is relatively straight forward but it is muddied up by characters constantly monologuing to one another in a manner that barely matches Tarantino at his drivel-spewing worst (aka Death Proof). Stylistic, unrealistic dialogue can be great if done well but it can quickly become unbearable otherwise. The dialogue in the film is presumably supposed to be profound but, not only is it lacking in profundity, it detracts from the storytelling, robs the film of any humour and gives the whole film an air of pomposity that it never comes close to earning.

Unlike the best crime noir stories, The Counselor also certainly doesn't earn its bleakness, its cold-heart or mean-spiritedness as the audience cares about as much about the characters, as the film does about actually saying something. Not a jot, in other words. Now, maybe I'm missing something. Maybe the film is actually saying something quite worthwhile and maybe the endless reams of dialogue actually add up to something and maybe I'm just thick, but to my mind at least, The Counselor adds up to very little at all.

Put it this way: No Country for Old Men was every bit as cold, bleak and mean as this but even if some of the faithfully poetic dialogue was similarly a bit hard to come to terms with in the Coens' film (McCarthy is clearly a poet at heart), No Country at least had a very real sense of purpose to it and, however nihilistic and bleakly pessimistic it was, what resulted was a powerful, moving and often laugh out loud exercise in staring into the void.

By contrast, The Counselor comes across as little more than a self-indulgent, bloated, overly serious and ultimately vacuous bit of nastiness with absolutely everyone involved (again, except for Fassbender who holds his own as the film's eponymous lead) batting way below their average. It's a complete dud.


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