THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
The opening scene of The Counselor is Michael Fassbender performing oral sex on Penelope Cruz. It gives you a good idea of what to expect. The film is brash, surprising, more than a little provocative. It's also a bit non-linear and extremely weird in a way that's surprising, given the all-star pedigree. For about the first 40 minutes, I wasn't quite engaged. The individual scenes were all interesting, yet somehow didn't seem to fit together. Everything seemed overwrought, as though attempts at poignancy had accidentally veered into preposterousness. Around the time that Cameron Diaz had sex with a Ferrari, I was struck by the realization that, at some level, The Counselor is actually a very, very (very) dark comedy. Suddenly, things started to make sense. I sat up in my seat a little straighter. I laughed and began to get into it. Here's the thing: The Counselor is ahead of its time. In 25 years, there's a chance that it may be regarded as a modern classic.
Fassbender plays the Counselor, an attorney who is engaged to the love of his life, Laura (Cruz). Hoping to score some quick cash, he becomes involved with a drug cartel that is moving a large shipment of cocaine via sewage trucks. (Those trucks are one of the film's great metaphors, representing the literal version of the shit the Counselor gets himself into.) He has two co-conspirators in this dark, shadowy underworld. One is a businessman/criminal named Reiner (Javier Bardem) with a sexed-up, power-hungry, not-as-dim-as-she-seems girlfriend (Diaz). The other is a middleman named Westray (Brad Pitt). Both issue dire warnings about the hazards of the drug trade, including the possibility of violent, horrific death. At first, the Counselor ignores these warnings. When the operation hits a snag that he may inadvertently be responsible for, though, their cautions become prophetic.
The Counselor plays better when you realize it's Mr. Bean with Michael Fassbender instead of Rowan Atkinson. What I mean is, like that British comedy, this is the story of a man who enters a situation and immediately gets in over his head. No matter what he does to try to contain that situation, his efforts only make things incrementally worse. One of the movie's better jokes is that Reiner and Westray, in long and quirky speeches, continually warn the Counselor about the perils of what he's doing, yet he arrogantly ignores them. The outcomes are, of course, often terrible, but they're also darkly funny. Everything in the movie is heightened just enough to be weirdly comical, although it's always played completely straight. We know the Counselor has utterly ignored all precautions given to him, and yet he is surprised when what he's told will happen actually happens.
There is a you-won't-believe-your-eyes fearlessness to The Counselor that makes it entertaining. In addition to the scene with Diaz and the Ferrari (which isn't a spoiler, because I didn't tell you how she accomplishes her task, and that's the real astonishing part), the movie has unusual instruments of death, a pair of leopards, wildly eccentric characters who say the most outrageous things, and a scene set in a confessional booth that will drop the jaws of Catholic viewers, in particular. While the early scenes admittedly fail to introduce characters and situations in a clear, concise manner, the more daring The Counselor gets, the more everything falls into line. The actors, who embrace their material with admirable gusto (especially Diaz), help sell the tone.
The screenplay was written by noted author Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men, The Road), and the director is Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Alien). Neither of them are especially known for comedy. Then again, The Counselor is not your ordinary comedy. It's more of an existential comedy, an exaggerated cautionary tale about the perils of not heeding warning signs. The Counselor is a very smart guy, and that's what makes him so dumb.
Note: I'm giving The Counselor three stars, for now. I reserve the right to raise that upon second viewing and/or the passage of time.
( out of four)
The Counselor is rated R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.
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