Thursday, October 24, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW The Counselor
Learning About Loss, But Not A Loss Of Style

Javier Bardem as Reiner and Michael Fassbender as the title character in Ridley Scott's drama "The Counselor".  Fox 2000/Twentieth Century Fox
Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Thursday, October 24, 2013

"Our business is to find the imperfections," says an Amsterdam diamond dealer (Bruno Ganz) during Ridley Scott's globetrotting slow-burn drama "The Counselor", dedicated to his late brother Tony Scott among others.  In the film a dapper, self-satisfied criminal defense lawyer will dabble in the rough trade of drugs.  Why?  Does he care about his law license?  Is he bored?  Is he reckless?  Has he a death wish?  The city of Juarez, Mexico, one of the film's principal settings, is littered with dead bodies, we're told.  "About 3,000 people a year" are killed, someone says. 

Despite speeches on moral turpitude, sociopaths and swaths of highly visceral violence Mr. Scott throws more psychological chips than physical ones onto the lavish, decorous tableau he's fashioned and sings, "que sera, sera."  That sentiment is the attitude the unnamed soulless lawyer (Michael Fassbender) adopts.  All we know is he loves his innocent fiancé Laura (Penelope Cruz, her talent wasted here) and is part of a not-so-innocent trade that blasé philosophical middle man/grim reaper Westray (Brad Pitt) promises him won't end well.  He doesn't heed Westray's words.  Would he if Westray's words were instead these?

Like gambling at a casino, "The Counselor" is about tactic, calculation and risk.  Some don't know when to get out of the game.  "The Counselor" is also about the inevitable vortex of circumstance that rapidly sweeps people into danger, desperation and death.  Caveat emptor is a phrase the naive lawyer should have memorized from his law school days.  An air of foreboding permeates Mr. Scott's thriller, where the end arrives sooner than the start.  This dual-toned film is both noir terrain and a fashion preview of selfish excess.  Blood and decapitations are pitted against indulgent wardrobes and frequent shots of leopards and dogs as showpieces.  The latter are distractions best viewed in a Siegfried & Roy commercial.

Events in "The Counselor" are exclamation marks in a larger spider's web, not a series of predicaments involving the lawyer.  Everything happens around, not necessarily to him.  Integral characters are in scenes that feel like individual and distinct movies independent of the one Mr. Fassbender operates in.  Cameo actors give showy speeches, some with a haunting poetry.  Every scene represents an edge, the edge in a rough, chiseled block draped with opulence, silk curtains and a reckoning.

Eye candy aside, "The Counselor", which engineers dread like endless ceremony, feels unfinished and disconnected.  I was left with a "so what-who cares-what was that for?" feeling.  When our lawyer suddenly sniffs the doo-doo he's in the whole exercise looks mighty foolish.  If the lawyer is wise enough to anticipate motives on a casual level why plunge headlong into a dead end?  When the focus returns to the lawyer in the film's latter stages, any emotion by Mr. Fassbender registers falsely.  He and his lawyer character are literally lost, whether in a crowd or the lawyer's stupidity.  Since we know virtually nothing about the lawyer there's little incentive to care about him or his fate. 

The lawyer has to deal with a flamboyant and eccentric businessman drug dealer Reiner (an entertaining Javier Bardem) who harps about women and their mystique.  There's much fear in the men in this film, including Reiner, whose outrageous, extravagant girlfriend Malkina (an icy Cameron Diaz) wears his "big boy pants".  The film's women are spoken of as expendable body parts.  There's no country for decent women here.  "Have you been bad?", a line spoken to a man and teased in the film's trailer but not the final cut, would have been redundant during a wild, if not demeaning scene for what a woman does in a film littered with mentions of "dirty girls".

Ms. Diaz is more well-suited to her serious role here than to comedies (with the exception of "Bad Teacher" or "There's Something About Mary").  The outfits she dons in "The Counselor" overwhelm any depth she brings to a shallow character.  Yet it's that materialistic, tin-foil surface appearance in Malkina that makes Ms. Diaz such a chilling and confident presence in "The Counselor".  Malkina, whose leopard tattoos epitomize her mentality, uses sex as a warning not a seduction. 

Mr. Pitt is a magnetic presence in his few scenes, and the danger Westray's aura suggests is palpable.  He's in complete control, likable and brutally candid.  As for Mr. Fassbender, a good actor with a high intensity level, he's more an interface to the film than its propulsive centerpiece.  At times he looks as if he'd rather be elsewhere.  He's betrayed by a script having little for him to play off of.   

Also with: John Leguizamo, Rosie Perez, Ruben Bladés, Goran Visnjic.

"The Counselor" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language. 
The film's running time is one hour and 46 minutes. 

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