Thursday, October 31, 2013

"The Counselor" review

"The Counselor" is an enigma of a film. Anyone expecting an action-packed crime thriller will be very disappointed here because that's not exactly what "The Counselor" is going for. There are some thrills; there are some pretty gruesome death scenes, but this is a film that's more interested in the philosophical aspects of greed and extreme pride than a body count. Problem is, the end result does not add up to a competent, fully-functional film. By many accounts, it's an unquestionable failure, but goddamnit if it's not an interesting failure.

The Counselor, that is, the title character of the movie (Michael Fassbender) is a hot shot lawyer that plans on marrying his beautiful girlfriend (Penelope Cruz), doing so by proposing with a very expensive 3.5-carat diamond. He decides to get involved in a drug deal that apparently promises a four thousand percent return rate, a decision that his business associate (Brad Pitt) warns could wind up being an extremely dangerous venture, especially when dealing with Mexican drug cartels.

Murphy's law would look like a pleasant dream compared to what soon follows after the Counselor decides he wants in on this deal. Literally every aspect of this drug deal goes way wrong and suddenly the Counselor's life is in great danger. What makes matters worse is who the Counselor is actually up against. Throughout the film he has his chats with friend, Reiner (Javier Bardem), whose girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) is batshit crazy. Once Reiner's girlfriend catches wind up of this drug deal, all bets are off.

That's pretty much all that needs to be said about the movie's plot. I had a tough time recounting it all in my head because "The Counselor" doesn't really emphasize plot all too much. "The Counselor" is an exercise in bad behavior and the inherent punishment that coincides with such bad behavior. In The Counselor's world, it's not that these bad people can't survive without severe consequences, it's that everyone who meets their demise is ultimately too naive to know what's really coming to them. They're too smart, too prideful to realize that there may be someone else out there that's a few steps ahead of them. The film, in a heavy-handed manner, plays on a "hunter vs. prey" motif, symbolized by Malkina's pet leopards who remain a striking presence throughout the film. And while the ultimate lesson here, greed = bad, is a rather simplistic one when all is said and done, "The Counselor" is still intriguing in the way it explores its themes.

Unfortunately, one main flaw is the casting of Cameron Diaz as Malkina. Her character turns out to be the smartest person in the film, but the way Cameron Diaz plays her does not suggest that at all. She overplays her hand too often, trying to make Malkina seem menacing and sexy but instead goes way over-the-top. Reiner mentions how much of a psycho Malkina is, but Diaz plays that aspect of her character to the extreme, completely derailing the film in the process. Ultimately, she's just not convincing as a baddie and compared to the restrained performances from Bardem, Fassbender, and Pitt, she seems completely out of place.

Moreso than the poor casting choice, "The Counselor" is just way too heavy-handed thematically to be effective. It's too clever and cute for its own good and the lengthy dialogue is just not filmed in an interesting or cinematic manner. The film is devoid of subtlety and the end result is something that comes off as glib instead of entertaining. Its philosophizing too often comes off as being pretentious instead of something smart or insightful. It's clear here that Ridley Scott wanted very much to stay as true to Cormac McCarthy's script as he possibly could, but in doing that, wound up making a film that feels flat and un-cinematic. And we're talking Ridley Scott here. At his best, Scott is as cinematic as it gets even if his films in the past decade or so have been consistently underwhelming. The main commonality in all his films of late seems to be the lack of a coherent script. Here, the script is not incoherent, but it's definitely rife with problems that should've been easily solvable during the pre-production/development process. McCarthy is, first and foremost, a novelist. "The Counselor" is his first screenplay, as a matter of fact. So, one can understand the problem here. "The Counselor" probably reads much better as a novel, but as is, does not make for a successful adaptation into movie-form.

Still, there is indeed something quite intriguing about this movie, something that will make me want to revisit it in the near-future. It's definitely onto something. The way the characters match wits with each other can be pretty fun to watch and the film features a scene involving Diaz and a car that you will not forget easily. What we're left with is a film filled with such promise, it's just lacking the right execution to make it all work in the end. It's a bad film, but fascinatingly bad.

Grade: C+

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