THE COUNSELOR (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Ridley Scott, 2013
Is The Counselor as bad as they say? Could anything be? After the bashing and trashing that the majority of the nation’s movie critics doled out to director Ridley Scott’s and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy’s glossy, violent, and densely talky thriller — a gaudy neo noir about beautiful people in El Paso mixed up with deadly drug dealers in Mexico – The Counselor seemed to have taken one of those ultimate Heaven’s Gate-style Big Falls. A movie I’d been looking forward to, it now seems to be firmly ensconced as an Ishtar of thrillers, and a Gigli of anti-establishment shoot-‘em- ups, if not a Plan 9 from Outer Space of all-star neo-noir dramas. Then again, I’ve always been a defender of Heaven’s Gate. And, for that matter, of Plan 9 from Outer Space. As for Ishtar, I’ll forgive Elaine May anything because of Mikey and Nicky.
The Counselor, in some ways, seemed to be inviting mean wisecracks and it certainly got them — including several votes as the worst movie of all time. Despite impressive credits and credentials — including a cast that boasted Michael Fassbender as the Counselor, Cameron Diaz as the Bad Girl, Javier Bardem as the Good Time Bad Guy, Brad Pitt as a Cowboy Slickster, and Penelope Cruz as the film’s only nice person, the Counselor’s Wife-to-be — this movie (with some notable exceptions) took a God-awful drubbing from reviewers: the same kind of whipping as some of its unhappy characters. Any praise mostly went to Bardem’s and Diaz’s two pet cheetahs. There were only a few burning questions: how on earth it happened and whether Scott and his brazen star Diaz and her now infamous yellow Ferrari deserved some kind of Clio for the lewdest product placement in cinema history.
Diaz played the wicked Malkina, and, in the course of The Counselor, she does the nasty with that Ferrari, while Bardem as the spiky-haired Reiner — shocked, shocked — peeks from the driver’s seat. What did Ridley Scott ever do to deserve this? Shepherding what seemed a Tiffany project — an original screenplay by the much-praised, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy (a script right in the vein of the recent Oscar-winning adaptation of McCarthy’s book No Country for Old Men) – Scott picked up some of the worst reviews he’s gotten since — well, since 1982’s then-badly-received science fiction neo-noir Blade Runner.
Yet the movie, like Blade Runner, has its surprises. Fassbender plays the title character, a lawyer so archetypal and John Grisham-esque that he’s known simply as “The Counselor” — and so incautious that he gets involved with a Mexican drug cartel that smuggles the stuff in septic tanks. This outfit is run by the estimable Ruben Blades as El Jefe, a sort of post-Peckinpah gang boss, but not as crazy. El Jefe, part of a mostly first-rate supporting ensemble, is backed by a lot of well-paid immoral scuzzbags, including the evilly grinning thug played by John Leguizamo, who took his name off the credits. And the Counselor, whom we first meet in a luxury bedroom, pontificating under the sheets with Cruz (as his eventual fiancée Laura), learns soon enough what, apparently, years of law practice, plus some extremely dire warnings, haven’t lodged in his handsome noggin: Crime does not pay. (Actually it does. It just won’t pay him.)
You’ve probably seen this kind of story before, but probably not quite as well-produced, and probably not with this kind of language — this high-flown rhetoric and moral questioning, and these philosophical zingers: “You‘re cold.” “Time has no temperature.“ “I’ve seen it all. And it’s all shit.“ When we first meet the Counselor, he’s in bed with the adorable Laura, ruminating away, Then he’s in Amsterdam, buying a flawless 3 ½ carat diamond (for Laura’s ring) from a dealer played by the usually brainy Swiss-German New Wave veteran Bruno Ganz (An American Friend) , who starts the philosophical ball rolling with a few thoughtful, intense observations about life and death and morality,
Then the Counselor scoots back to Texas, for a confab with Bardem‘s Reiner (whose wild spiky fright wig hairdo is alleged to have been copied from producer Brian Grazer) and Reiner’s trophy murderess, the wicked Malkina, and the couple’s pride and joy, those two magnificent cheetahs. (These cheetahs are so impressive that Malkina has her back tattooed with spots to continue the motif.) Meanwhile, the jubilantly playful Reiner tries to warn the Counselor off. So does Pitt’s Westway. But nothing avails. This apparently, is no Country for Counselors.
What happens next you can probably guess: and if you can’t guess the details, you can get the general drift. But what’s the beef? I’ve seen many movies with stories just as “clichéd” and just as confusing, and hundreds that were worse, even far worse, than The Counselor — and they didn‘t arouse this kind of bludgeoning contempt and these mass conniption fits. Actually, as others have noted, The Counselor is the sort of movie that critics describe as extremely bad, when what they should say is “extremely disappointing“ or an extreme let-down, or not what they would have expected, given its players and pedigree. (Actually, a number did say this.)
The Counselor, whatever you think of it, does have its moments, including a lot of good performances — especially by Bardem, Pitt, Blades and even Leguizamo. Predictably, it also looks great, full of gorgeous menace and ravishing decadence, The problem, as many have noted, is the script — and the way it was handled.
Ridley Scott’s major sin here — other than making a bad or unprofitable movie, which plenty of moviemakers in Hollywood have done before — seems to be that he employed an 80-year old Pulitzer Prize winning, critically admired novelist, Cormac McCarthy, as his screenwriter, instead of some young hotshot with a film school degree, a high-flying agent, a multi-picture deal, and a propensity for inserting the word “fuck” in every third speech — but that McCarthy sold him the same sort of script that very same hotshot might have churned out, only longer and wordier and darker, with a nastier villainess. In addition, McCarthy and Scott interlarded the predictable and inevitable wild-ass action, gunplay and sex-scenes-in-posh-settings (the money scenes) with long literary, quasi-philosophical speeches about life and death and morality, and not just by Ganz. Yet the very things that make The Counselor interesting (despite itself) are those same attempts at moral seriousness and those same perversely eloquent and writerly speeches and dialogues.
So — or so some of the film’s legion of detractors seem to surmise — the studios, seduced by McCarthy’s Pulitzer and the Oscars won by No Country for Old Men, threw their hard-earned cash down the rat-hole of art , instead of investing in something with a third the dialogue, a third the ambition, and twice the carnage. And Ridley Scott then lavished his inarguable gifts of visual dazzle on an unforgivably ambitious (read “pretentious’) script written by a sometimes (at least according to many literary critics) great writer.
I’m being ironic, of course. But, contrary to what many contemporary movie observers fallaciously believe, writing “literary” dialogue, or writing lots of dialogue, or borrowing and adapting literary dialogue from some classic of literature, are not mortal moviemaking sins, and in fact many great or good movies liberally employ them. A love of literature was Orson Welles’ stock in trade, and the most movie-adapted of all writers is William Shakespeare, whose works, as I remember, regularly get accused of pretension and over-length.
McCarthy though, is no anti-movie snob. He apparently loves movies. And The Counselor was a script that the movie-loving McCarthy wrote, after years of having his scripts turned down, some of which he then turned into novels (including reportedly, No Country for Old Men). He wanted to follow the rules — at least, some of them. Despite his predilections and crushes though, he seems to have inspired some film folk to see him as the enemy. Those attacks on McCarthy’s writing in The Counselor sometimes became — and sometimes intentionally — attacks on the whole idea of trying for brilliantly literary or consciously theatrical dialogue in a movie. They also became attacks on the supposedly “uncinematic“ qualities of filmed novels or filmed theater.
But if it’s on the screen or on the soundtrack, it’s cinematic; the question is one of quality, not kind. Though some literary movies are lousy, some aren‘t. We could use many more screenplays with the eloquence and sheer verbal energy and agility — and wit — of His Girl Friday and Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Lolita and A Streetcar Named Desire and The Magnificent Ambersons and the great Shakespearean films of Welles and Olivier — and we could use more too, like No Country for Old Men. (I’m not comparing any of these movis to The Counselor, merely filing another brief for stronger and more ambitious literary content in film.)
Ironically, Ridley, in The Counselor — as some have noted — wound up making the same kind of movie that was the specialty of his late brother Tony (the director of Tarantino’s similarly violent and zingy script for True Romance). Tony Scott, who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge, while The Counselor was being shot half a world away, was a critical bete noir to some, a cult hero to others. And Ridley shut down shooting, and flew to his brother’s funeral — after that final act of Tony’s that brings to mind all those questions of life and death and morality and destiny that somehow sneaked their way into McCarthy’s “self indulgent” script.
What do I think about all this? Well, as someone who is obviously biased in favor of both Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy, I‘d like nothing more than to join with the critics who gave The Counselor some of its lonely rave reviews. There was more than a little of this insulted and injured film that I enjoyed. But I have to admit I couldn’t make sense of some of The Counselor, and some of it bored me, and overall, it struck me as confusingly arranged, especially in the second half. (What really happens to the cheetahs? Apparently there‘s a scene that was cut.) Pieces seemed to be missing, and I‘m not surprised that McCarthy had to trim the scenario down from 175 pages. 175 pages of movie script are supposed to translate to about three hours of movie. And in this case — judging by the few script fragments I’ve seen — the results might have been closer to three and a half hours or more. Still, sometimes, when you cut down a long movie, the discontinuities wind up making it seem longer.
At any rate, I deviate from most, in feeling that the movie maybe should have been longer rather than shorter, or, as some people want it to be, nonexistent.) And, in the end, no matter how “bad” the Counselor is, I’m in favor of directors like Ridley Scott filming scripts by writers like Cormac McCarthy, even if those scripts have some long, or philosophically showy speeches that wouldn’t have passed muster with Syd Field.
Would the Counselor have been better or worse with more talk? Here is a mysterious typewritten scene from a padded envelope that was shoved under my apartment door last night, allegedly smuggled in from El Paso in a septic tank. Though I don’t believe it for a second, it is supposedly missing or alternate dialogue from the scene where the wicked Malkina — who, in this version, is called The Wicked Malinka — confesses her sins to the perturbed priest, Father Carlos (played by Edgar Ramirez). It was supplied by a rewrite man. The confessional scene is followed by a two page speech by the priest — a part the script, oddly enough, said was originally intended for Mel Brooks — on life, death, mortality and power steering.
READER WARNING: THIS SCENE CONTAINS EXPICIT LANGUAGE
Bless me father, for I have sinned.
Bless you daughter. Speak. When was your last confession?
I don’t know. Sometime after Bad Teacher.
Sometime after what, my child?
Oh nothing, father. Just a mortal sin I made for Columbia.
Well, what have you done lately?
Father I, I…I made a picture called The Counselor. And I fucked a Ferrari,
You….what? Please my child, remember you are in the House of the Lord. You can convey your meaning without being…so explicit.
Yes father, I’ll remember. I…I did it with a Ferrari.
You had carnal relations with a man named Ferrari?
No, with a car. A yellow Ferrari With power steering. Then I went down on it. Then I did it again.
With a car? (A long pause.) Was that all you did?
No. They made us do sixty takes.
Who made you? Was someone else in the room? I mean: in the garage?
Yes. The director. And the whole crew. And Cormac McCarthy. It was in a studio. It was for a movie.
A movie? You were making a motion picture? Why?
I was very well-paid, Father. And Cormac McCarthy won a prize — The Nobel Prize I think. And they told me that Marilyn Monroe once did 60 takes for her director, Billy Wilder for a scene in Some Like It Hot.
My daughter, this is a very peculiar story. Are you sure you’re not making part of it up? How for instance is it possible to have carnal relations with a … with a sports car? Where were you?
I….I don’t remember.
And was that all you committed with the Ferrari?
Well no, There was also the rehearsal.
Yes, but the rehearsal wasn’t with a Ferrari. They had to use a Bentley because the Ferrari was on loan for a chase scene in, I think, Red 2.
Red 2? I saw Red 2, my child. There was no yellow Ferrari in Red 2!
Well, maybe it was a silver Mercedes. I don’t know, Father. After a while, they all look the same.