Review: The Counselor (2013)
November 02, 2013 18:48 | Updated: 4 weeks 5 days Ago
Big Name Nothing
A Film Review of The Counselor
By: Lawrence Napoli
During my recent trips to Regal Cinemas, I found it curious how Ridley Scott (a Hall of Fame Hollywood director) participated in a small, behind-the-scenes promo that plugged his upcoming film: The Counselor weeks prior to its release. Usually, the pre-preview video at the cinemas is reserved for more obscure film and TV projects that need a little extra attention because they’re smaller productions or filled with relative unknowns. A Ridley Scott film usually speaks for itself without too much fanfare, but then Ridley himself (during the promo) makes specific reference to the big name cast that was assembled for this film: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt and a few as yet mentioned cameos, and one can’t help but assume that this film must be something special. Always be weary of a film that looks like it’s trying too hard to promote itself.
The Counselor is a film that is trying to outthink itself and sound smarter than it really is all while playing the “hide the plot” game from the audience in what appears to be an attempt to freshen up the crime drama genre by relying on big name talent to see the film through the end credits. Despite this film’s deficiencies in presenting an enveloping and satisfying cinematic adventure, there are some really good things to see like some exceptional performances and an active and intimate camera frame to capture it all. Scott clearly had an understanding with his cast as well as cinematographer Dariusz Wolski to address the basic artistry of capturing dramatic action onscreen which translates to a very sharp-looking motion picture for a production that only boasted a $25 million dollar budget. Unfortunately, all the fluff, glitz and name recognition in the world doesn’t mask the fact that the story is rather pedestrian and the only thing that it’s really good at is eluding the audience while dropping small vignettes that foreshadow minimal payoffs as the film progresses.
Screenwriting is the real culprit behind The Counselor’s frustrations and that means Cormac McCarthy (as celebrated as he is for his novels: The Road and No Country for Old Men) shows his inexperience with writing a story that unfolds visually within a two and a half hour window. Don’t get me wrong, I love a number of his characters’ monologues as they portray the fictional players that call the shots in world of illegal drug trade as much more thoughtful and intellectual than the murderous thugs they probably are in the real world. I really enjoyed some of the outlandish stories that are shared in dialogue sequences because some of them are just so absurd that it could have possibly happened to someone in reality. I also found that the characters he created are unique enough for me to be interested in upon their introduction. The problem is relevance; as in there appears to be none. All those awesome scenes of interplay amongst criminals give the audience zero back-story and even less insight into where the plot may be heading. Much of the dialogue is spoken in code where the characters know where each other are coming from while the audience has no context to join the party. None of the characters are identified by their motivations, goals or methodologies, merely their own physical embodiment at various slices of life during the chain of events that has been set in motion well before the first scene of the film is observed by the audience. The main character known only as “The Counselor,” whom one might think is the lynchpin to the plot is actually the least important. Throw in the fact that there isn’t a heck of a lot of action at all and what you’re left with is a film that closely resembles McCarthy’s other Hollywood adaptations minus the charm or depth of any meaningful character development.
There simply isn’t any flow to the narrative. Despite the need to keep the audience guessing at who the big bad is or what the ultimate conspiracy might be, the audience still needs two things: 1) some kind of starting point for a main character (even if it is completely false) and 2) to observe a progression of events that builds towards some destination. The Counselor only delivers the latter, which significantly diminishes the impact of the journey due to no appreciation for where it began. From the very first scene in the film the one question that constantly plagues the audience is “how did we get here?” and it never, EVER gets addressed. As a result, the audience never has a chance to understand “why we get there” in the scenes that follow which doesn’t lay the groundwork for a plot meant to hold anyone’s attention.
Now there are some good things happening from the performance perspective of this film’s cast, but that compliment does not extend to Cameron Diaz or Penélope Cruz. In their defense, neither is given the same kind of opportunities as Fassbender and Bardem because their roles are relegated as the nasty sex object and the wholesome sex object respectively. What makes this odd is that Cameron Diaz hasn’t been sexy since There’s Something about Mary back in 1998 and Ms. Cruz’s accent is, shall we say, an acquired taste. International drug trading is a male dominated industry and this film makes no attempt to reverse that trend as both are little more than window dressing and liabilities. As such, both of their performances are typical of the roles that made them famous in past films and, interestingly enough, quite reflective of the exact characters they played in Vanilla Sky.
Brad Pitt’s contributions as the nondescript Westray is almost as unimpressive as the women. He is calm, cool, collected and apparently all-knowing as some sort of Cocaine Jedi, but doesn’t demonstrate any flair in his character’s wisdom and never deviates from his strict role as an “advisor” to the “counselor.” Michael Fassbender, on the other hand, has a number of moments where he simply gushes emotion in a thankful departure from his robotic role in Prometheus. His American accent isn’t flawless, but his charisma really draws the audience into his character. His character shifts status a number of times from cool player, to enamored lover, to frustrated novice, to bewildered victim of circumstance and he plain sells every moment. The audience is meant to see this plot primarily through “The Counselor’s” eyes and his authentic performance reflects the emotional extremes one must be plagued with upon involving him or herself in illegal activity with virtually no experience.
The real star of this film happens to be Javier Bardem and his character Reiner who represents the lavish lifestyle of a successful drug trader, but whose own personal wealth is outclassed only by his eccentricity. The character has a pair of pet cheetahs for crying out loud! What’s most entertaining about Bardem’s performance are his Charlie Murphy-style, “true Hollywood stories” about his own experiences in this rollercoaster life. One story regarding Cameron Diaz’s Malkina had the entire audience laughing out loud and the manner in which Bardem presents it is nothing short of pure genius. Reiner is so flippant in the role he plays in the drug trade, but he’s also developed an apathy regarding his fate should anything go wrong and this is where Bardem tempers an extravagant performance with some bitter realism over the fact that in this business, if the finger gets put on you (regardless of who you are), your fate is sealed.
The Counselordemonstrates more potential in its credited cast than its story, themes, scope or presentation and that might be the very first time I’ve observed such a thing in a film by Ridley Scott. In the script’s attempt to diverge from a traditional structure and presentation regarding the crime drama, it finds too many instances where the plot runs dry and leaves the audience wondering what’s going on. I’m not sure how much script maintenance Scott ever involved himself in past productions, but his career certainly could have afforded him some leeway to amend the final draft to be less vague, yielding a better film overall. That being said, this film is very average and barely worth a screening once it becomes available on-demand. Where’s Michael Mann when you need him?