By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Star power can take a movie only so far.
That’s why, despite the presence of Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, and Penelope Cruz in the principal roles, The Counselor loses its case.
It’s a dark thriller about greed and excess that is itself greedy and excessive, and sensationalistic but nowhere near sensational.
The setting is El Paso, Tex., near the Mexican border.
Fassbender plays the titular unnamed lawyer, slick and self-assured but not all that worldly and till now law-abiding and respected.
Although already in debt, he spends a fortune on an engagement ring for his saintly fiancée, played by Cruz, then gets involved with criminals — including kingpin Bardem, middleman Pitt, and femme fatale Diaz — in a drug-running operation involving importing cocaine from Colombia to Chicago in a septic tank truck for a murderous drug cartel.
Then the truck disappears.
The get-rich-quick cocaine deal, worth $20 million, is born of the lawyer’s greed, which nearly everyone on screen exhibits (conspicuous consumption abounds and there seems to be no moral compass within easy reach) but which he is perhaps the least prepared to deal with or the worst-case-scenario consequences.
This is the first original screenplay produced for the movie screen by revered author Cormac McCarthy, several of whose novels have already become films (No Country for Old Men, The Road, All the Pretty Horses) and who served as one of the executive producers.
But his stylized bleak-worldview dialogue is so overwritten, so bloated with self-importance, so awkwardly punctuated with heavyhanded symbols (like predatory pet cheetahs chasing down fleeing jackrabbits) that every line arrives as if in quotation marks.
The game cast do their best with it –- frankly, they deliver their lines with more conviction than they deserve — but they don’t just discuss. Instead, McCarthy and Scott have their lowlife characters speechify and pontificate and philosophize about fate, morality, and mortality, as if they were panelists at a seminar.
Meanwhile, the narrative, sorely lacking in connective tissue, remains stubbornly opaque from the arbitrary opening to the unsatisfying conclusion.
Veteran director Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator, Thelma & Louise, Prometheus, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster), always the skillful technician, makes the brightly lit film noir thriller look great, as expected, and showcases his marquee-name cast. But it’s in spite of — rather than because of — their dialogue, and they remain mouthpieces rather than flesh-and-blood characters.
There is, in short, enough verbal Meaning up on that screen to choke a horse. Or disengage an audience.
So we’ll traffic in 2 stars out of 4 for the sordid and pretentious crime drama The Counselor, an unpleasant cautionary tale that you’re hereby cautioned about.