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"THE COUNSELOR"
(2013) (Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Dramatic Thriller: A lawyer's life unravels when things go wrong after he gets involved in the drug trade in hopes of making a lot of fast money.
PLOT:
A never identified lawyer known only as the Counselor (MICHAEL FASSBENDER) would seem to have it all -- a good lifestyle and enough money to fly to Amsterdam and rent a Bentley to select a large engagement ring diamond for his girlfriend, Laura (PENELOPE CRUZ). Yet, he's in need of or at least desirous of a lot of fast money and thus asks his client-friend Reiner (JAVIER BARDEM) to get him in on a lucrative deal. With several pet cheetahs, an expensive sports car and an exotic girlfriend in the form of Malkina (CAMERON DIAZ), Reiner is living a lavish lifestyle.

Yet, he warns the Counselor that if he gets involved with a large shipment of cocaine, he needs to be prepared for moral dilemmas he couldn't have imagined. That's pretty much the same advice given to the Counselor by Reiner's middle-man contact, Westray (BRAD PITT), who tries to advise the lawyer to back away from the deal.

Undeterred, he opts in and the drugs start the beginning of their journey hidden in a septic truck. But little does the Counselor realize that an act of kindness -- bailing the adult son of his imprisoned client, Ruth (ROSIE PEREZ), out of jail -- will soon have his life and that of others unraveling.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
In the world of law and especially as practiced by a lawyer, being able to compose and then deliver a convincing argument is what will keep you in business, afford you a good and sometimes lavish lifestyle and occasionally make you a star. But if you deliver a half-baked or muddled argument that contains too many holes and/or a perceivable lack of concrete evidence, you're likely going to be toast.

Such is the case in "The Counselor," a dramatic thriller that on the surface looks like a no-brainer slam dunk. Notwithstanding the awful trailers and TV commercials -- that ultimately do little but showcase the talent involved behind the camera, the handsome cast in front of it, and something to do with extravagant living and dangers lying within -- this pic should have ended up being far more than it ultimately is.

After all, the director, Ridley Scott, has had his share of home runs ("Alien," "Blade Runner," "Thelma & Louise," "Black Hawk Down"), while the screenwriter is Cormac McCarthy, a Pulitzer winning novelist whose had his various works ("All the Pretty Horses," "The Road," "No Country For Old Men") turned into well-received if not critically acclaimed movies. And the cast is comprised of the likes of Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Brad Pitt, while lots of exotic cars, pet cheetahs and a plot about a drug deal gone bad permeate the flick.

What could possibly go wrong with all of that working in one's favor? Well, ladies and gentlemen of the cinematic jury, it's simply that the underlying central argument -- the protagonist's motivation -- not only is fairly scant, but it's also not believable. Fassbender plays the title character who's never identified by name beyond that, but he seems to be doing fairly well for himself. He dresses nicely, has an attractive place and can even afford to fly to Amsterdam and rent a Bentley to go purchase a huge rock from an exclusive diamond dealer so that he can propose to his ravishingly beautiful girlfriend (Penelope Cruz).

Yet, for reasons not satisfactorily explored or explained, he needs or at least wants more money. A lot of money. You know, the kind that usually only stems from illegal activity such as getting involved with 625 kilos of cocaine worth $20 million. Lucky for him, he has a client-friend (Javier Bardem sporting a spiky hairdo to show us he's a wild man) who knows a middle man (Brad Pitt, doing the sort of dangerous cool only a few like him can convincingly pull off) who can get him in on the deal.

Despite both men advising and otherwise not so subtly warning the counselor that he should have second thoughts about going down this perilous road -- and considering that he's not exactly unfamiliar with prison terms (what with having a client -- played by Rosie Perez -- in the slammer) -- he signs on the bottom line and seals his fate.

That's all while various characters wax philosophical (and then some) to deliver the heavy-handed themes at various points, and when Cameron Diaz isn't playing a wealthy socialite whose venomous view of others is barely concealed when she's not otherwise partaking in her various sexual peccadilloes. That includes her trying to rile up a priest in a confessional talking about women and sex, as well as the film's piece de resistance. That's a flashback moment where gynecological meets gymnastical as she crawls up Bardem's sport scar like a sultry feline, goes spread eagle on the windshield, and proceeds to perform an act that very well would make Miley Cyrus blush.

That moment does nothing for the film beyond show us what we already know about her character in that she'll do whatever she wants whenever she wants, any potential fallout be damned. It's clearly more flash than substance, something that also applies to McCarthy's screenplay (the first he's written directly for the screen).

While some of the dialogue is well-written (and the scenes between Fassbender and Pitt are the film's highlights in such regards), the moments where the minor characters delve deep into metaphors feel like the scribe is trying too hard (unlike, say, Tarantino's work that always seems to fit in perfectly with what he's trying to explore in his films). After the various sequences of dialogue finally wrap up, you realize the characters easily could have gone all Yoda and said something like "With fire you play, burned you will be" and still got the point across with a far greater economy of words.

Instead of spending so much time constructing those metaphor laden "teaching moments," McCarthy would have been better advised to fill in the various holes, such as why the counselor needs the money and would take such an obvious risk and what exactly his role was going to be in the drug deal. There's never any doubt it's going to derail and his life is going to unravel. Yet, since we know next to nothing about him or the reason behind his motives, we don't really care how things play out as we watch him increasingly squirm and sweat while one person manipulates scene after scene of the drugs being transported.

Yes, heads will roll -- figuratively and literally -- but such sensationalistic moments (including a far too telegraphed grisly demise as well as Diaz's character giving new meaning to "windshield wiper") hide the fact that the film has failed to deliver a well-executed or convincing argument. And it's certainly guilty of squandering much of its collected talent. "The Counselor" loses the case and thus rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed October 22, 2013 / Posted October 25, 2013


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