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Stylistic ‘The Counselor’ leaves audience waiting and hoping

  • San Francisco Chronicle
  • Published Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013, at 3:11 p.m.

Review

‘The Counselor’

* 1/2

Rating: R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott directed “The Counselor,” but this is Cormac McCarthy’s film all the way, a showcase for his original screenplay, and what a screenplay it is. It’s possible there has never been anything like it. It contains memorable dialogue, vivid characters and several superb scenes, yet it still manages to be wrong, a complete miscalculation.

It starts well enough. Two people are rolling around under the sheets one bright morning, and soon you see that it’s Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz – so, yes, there is something here for everybody. Scott films their morning banter in tight close-ups that make them look like the most beautiful people on the planet. All the audience wants to do is what the characters want to do – stay there, in bed, the whole movie.

But no, the story must kick in, and for a while, it’s promising. Fassbender plays an American lawyer in El Paso who is putting up the money for some kind of drug deal. The details are vague, but the situation forces him to have long, sit-down conversations about it, first with his business partner, Reiner (Javier Bardem), and next with Westray (Brad Pitt), who is brokering the deal. Both men try to warn him that the life he is about to enter is much harder to leave, and these conversations are fun to sit in on.

Some of the conversations sound like a writer typed them. They don’t quite sound like real talk, yet the tinge of artificiality is almost a virtue. It’s stylistic: “You don’t really know a man until you know what he wants.” We look forward to a story about a guy with everything to live for – as in, he is about to marry Penelope Cruz – who gets involved in something dangerous and consuming.

But the counselor is a rather odd role, and not in a good way. He is smart and looks fantastic in a suit. Today we might look at Fred Astaire to see what impeccable dress looked like in 1935. A few more movies like this and Fassbender will be the male fashion plate of our time. Yet what’s underneath such crisply tailored immaculateness? The counselor starts the movie dependent on other people to do his will, so he is inactive, basically just waiting and hoping. Then, through no fault of his own and with no participation on his part, things go wrong, and he becomes a helpless victim of circumstance.

Just so we get this straight, “The Counselor” is a movie about a guy who starts off not doing anything … and soon ends up unable to do anything. He is passive, then trapped. This is the protagonist. So here’s the question: If he is such an empty suit, why make him the focus of a story?

Of course, we sit in the audience expecting him to spring into action, to learn on his feet and become brilliant. We expect this, not merely because we’ve been conditioned by other movies, but because of the intrinsic demands of drama. But McCarthy never switches gears. The long conversations continue. At one point, the counselor calls Ruben Blades – he might be playing “Ruben Blades,” for all we know; the character is not identified – and Blades, instead of helping him, launches into some half-baked philosophy about irrevocable choices and the journey toward acceptance. It’s only midway through that we realize that this is not only Blades snowing the counselor. McCarthy is snowing us.

Cameron Diaz has a vivid role as a misogynistic fantasy, and the polar opposite of Cruz. If Cruz plays a man’s vision of all that is soft, sexual and welcoming, Diaz plays all that is angular, cold and frightening. We know all we need to know about her from her erect posture, the silver nail polish that looks like bullets and the leopard-spot tattoos on her back. If McCarthy wants to locate all the evil in the universe in Diaz, she is up for it, and she runs with it. But in the end, it’s all rather silly.

“The Counselor” is about as nihilistic as McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men,” but without the Coen brothers’ sense of humor — or sense of drama.

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