Wednesday, October 30, 2013

In Theaters: THE COUNSELOR (2013)

(US/UK - 2013)

Directed by Ridley Scott.  Written by Cormac McCarthy.  Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Bruno Ganz, Rosie Perez, Ruben Blades, Sam Spruell, Dean Norris, John Leguizamo, Edgar Ramirez, Toby Kebbell, Goran Visnjic, Natalie Dormer, Richard Cabral, Richard Brake, Andrea Deck, Giannina Facio. (R, 117 mins)

Though it's destined to go down in history as the movie where Cameron Diaz fucks a car, THE COUNSELOR is the kind of film that will probably play better on repeat viewings, when it's not hindered by trailer-generated, commercial expectations and its odd rhythms and reams of dialogue can be more closely studied and pondered.  The film is directed by Ridley Scott, but like its protagonist, Scott is more of a middleman here in deference to Pulitzer Prize-winning literary icon Cormac McCarthy, penning his first original screenplay at the age of 80, though I suspect he's had this one lying around in outline form for a while.  Past McCarthy works like No Country for Old Men and The Road were made into acclaimed films, but the author didn't have a hand in their scripts.  McCarthy's prose is such that it doesn't translate well to the screen and needs a screenwriter to pare it down and make it more cinematic (Tommy Lee Jones' monologue at the end of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN being an exception).  McCarthy's COUNSELOR script lets his characters talk and philosophize about sex, greed, the nature of manhood, and other moral and ethical quandaries for what are probably pages on end.  It's frequently ponderous and pretentious, but with the camera fixated on the actors for long stretches while they speak McCarthy's prose, one can see the appeal for the A-list cast.  Never mind that most people generally don't talk the way McCarthy's script has them talking.  THE COUNSELOR has some rewards for the informed or for McCarthy disciples, but the impatient or those expecting a commercial action thriller will find it a frustrating couple of hours (I counted two walkouts at a weekday afternoon screening to an audience of about ten, both not long after the "Cameron Diaz fucks a car" scene at the midway point).  The reviews have been overwhelmingly negative and while I concede that McCarthy's script probably could've used a neutral editor or at least an uncredited rewrite, it's not the dumpster fire that many have made it out to be.  And like many misunderstood films, I'm convinced it will find some appreciation over time, probably sooner rather than later. 

It seems like every fall, we get a major nationwide release with a cleverly-assembled trailer to make it look a bit like something that it's not.  Last year, it was the criminally underappreciated KILLING THEM SOFTLY, a Brad Pitt vehicle where Pitt didn't even appear until a third of the way in (it's interesting to note that Pitt turns up in THE COUNSELOR in a supporting role).  A couple of years back, THE AMERICAN was sold as an action-packed thriller when it turned out to be a somber, meditative, and very European, Jean-Pierre Melville-inspired character study with long, silent stretches of George Clooney looking glum, prompting quite possibly the funniest bit of moviegoer rage I've ever witnessed when an elderly woman shouted "Hang the director!" as the closing credits started rolling.  Those are fine films that play even better once you know what to expect from them.  THE COUNSELOR is undoubtedly a flawed work, and it hits and misses in equal measure.  But it has its moments.  And car-fucking.

Michael Fassbender stars as a nameless El Paso attorney, referred to only as "Counselor."  He's got a fiancée, Laura (a miscast Penelope Cruz, about a decade or more too old for her role) and a promising legal practice, but he's also got bigger monetary ambitions.  He wants to be rich now and finds a chance with his pal Reiner (Javier Bardem), a flashy club owner who's also on the payroll of a Mexican cartel operating just over the border.  Reiner is the kind of guy who makes sure everyone knows he's a player, from his garish wardrobe to his two pet cheetahs to his sexed-up girlfriend Malkina (Diaz), a woman who knows what she wants and knows just how to get it.  The Counselor is seduced by this lifestyle and gets involved in a $20 million drug buy that goes predictably awry when a money mule known as "The Green Hornet" (Richard Cabral) is decapitated by a rival cartel and the merchandise, being transported in a septic truck full of human waste, keeps changing hands.  The mule happens to be the son of Ruth (Rosie Perez), an incarcerated woman whose court-appointed attorney is--you guessed it--the Counselor.  Westray (Pitt), another middleman, ominously tells the Counselor that the cartel "has heard of coincidences but doesn't believe in them," and they're convinced that the Counselor--the new guy brought in by Reiner and Westray--has cooked up a plan to screw them out of $20 million and now they all have a price on their heads.  Literally, as Reiner warns him early on to "not take decapitations personally...it's just business."

That sounds like the plot for a kickass thriller, and in some spots, THE COUNSELOR really gets some suspenseful momentum going, especially when the shit hits the fan and the justifiably paranoid Counselor, who foolishly thought he could enter a business arrangement with a drug cartel and emerge unscathed (as Westray tells him, "You're involved!"), starts freaking out and Westray wants nothing more to do with him.  The Counselor already has a spotty reputation as a lawyer (there's one scene where a bitter former client played by Toby Kebbell angrily confronts him and warns Laura that her fiance has a habit of throwing people under the bus), and can't handle it when he's the one being unfairly blamed and hung out to dry.  But McCarthy isn't so much interested in that as much as he wants to explore the psychological motivation of guys like The Counselor and Reiner, which can essentially be summed up by "pussy."  There's a lot of male insecurities being explored in THE COUNSELOR as well as some outright misogyny, particularly with the depiction of Malkina as a ruthless man-eater.  So, a lot of the long conversations between the Counselor and Reiner deal with this sort-of self-analytical inadequacy masked as male braggadocio, with Reiner calling women "an expensive habit." At times, it feels like a drug cartel thriller written by Neil LaBute.

While McCarthy's dialogue is frequently cumbersome--Diaz's final monologue is ramblingly incoherent and some of her femme fatale talk a bit too pulpy (Reiner: "Are you really that cold?" Malkina: "The truth has no temperature"), there are some tacky one-liners that get some big, if inappropriate laughs--when Ruth asks the Counselor to pay her son's $400 speeding ticket and offers a blowjob as compensation, the Counselor replies "Then you'd still owe me $380," and Westray tells a joke that goes "How do you know Jesus wasn't born in Mexico?  Because he couldn't find three wise men or a virgin."  And regardless of whether you laugh out loud or are utterly appalled, Reiner's recounting of Malkina removing her knickers and spread-eagle masturbating against the windshield of his convertible with him in the front seat ("it was like a catfish...one of those bottom-feeders sliding down the aquarium glass") is one of Bardem's finest career moments.

After PROMETHEUS, Scott's often personal, reflective revisit to the ALIEN universe that felt a bit too studio-compromised in its second half, it's interesting that the famed filmmaker would take a sort-of secondary role in something like THE COUNSELOR.  Sure, he brings a sense of style and composition to the look of the film, but this is ultimately more McCarthy than Scott.  At 75, Scott is still cranking movies out on an almost annual basis (he directed eight films from 2000-2009, and THE COUNSELOR is his third since 2010, with a fourth, the Showtime movie THE VATICAN, set to air by year's end), and THE COUNSELOR is one of the least predictable and most difficult to categorize works in Scott's storied career.  You could say THE COUNSELOR is a muddled mess and you wouldn't exactly be wrong.  But it's a film whose rewards perhaps aren't as apparent after one viewing.  Once the dust from the toxic reviews and the audience antipathy settles, this, like KILLING THEM SOFTLY, which is already enjoying an improved rep just a year after bombing in theaters, will find appreciation and respect on its own bizarre terms.  Either that, or maybe I'm giving it too much credit and Scott and McCarthy are just a couple of dirty old men.

Update: review of the 138-minute Unrated Extended Cut can be found here.

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