“The Counselor” spoils easily one of the most memorably bizarre scenes in a studio drama this year. In it, Cameron Diaz takes off her panties, clambers onto the hood of Javier Bardem’s Ferrari and proceeds to dry hump the windshield. Bardem refers to the distinct visual he receives from the front passenger seat as “like a catfish.”
Bardem calls it too odd to be sexy, and he’s right, but Director Ridley Scott plays it for laughs because he’s not sure what to do with writer Cormac McCarthy’s scene either.
This is McCarthy’s first original screenplay following multiple film adaptations of his novels including “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road.” He’s written a drug cartel drama in which women, morality, paradoxes and regret take a prominent role while a mysterious, never seen evil pulls the strings in the background.
Scott however shoots “The Counselor” like it’s “American Gangster.” It amounts to a clunky thriller reduced to tedious conversation pieces, a nonsensical plot and unclear motives or forces trying to create suspense.
“The Counselor’s” cast is populated with five elusive weirdos. The title character, known only as Counselor (Michael Fassbender), is entering into a multi-million dollar drug deal with an eloquent cowboy named Westray (Brad Pitt) just as he’s proposed to his girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz). He’s a lawyer with strings to pull and money to throw around on near perfect diamonds, but there’s only one instance in which we see him working and exerting some sly influence.
Mostly he coordinates with a drug dealer and club owner named Reiner (Bardem). Bardem trades in his slick haircut from “Skyfall” for a look that appears perpetually stuck after riding a roller coaster. His garish, patterned clothes and purple walls inside his modern home serve as the setting for Reiner’s warnings to the counselor. He describes a robotic neck brace that strangles a man to death over several agonizing minutes and offers no possible escape. There’s also a “snuff film,” in which unspeakable things happen to kidnapped women, are recorded and sent to the woman’s loved ones.
It’s all cynical, vulgar and existential, suggesting terrifying depths where the mind can go in these pure, colorful surroundings. But free of a score or camera movement during these scenes, each detail plays like a breadcrumb for a big reveal later. Scott has muted everything that would make the film surreal or profound.
It results in dialogue that is plain inscrutable. Pitt rattles off prose like he has somewhere to be, Fassbender seems cast only as a sounding board and Bardem lets his growling accent do all the work.
And yet despite Bardem’s look and charisma, the most noticeable performance in “The Counselor” is from Diaz. She plays a sleazy, sexual villainess named Malkina. She knows an awful lot about diamonds, owns two cheetahs and terrorizes a priest in a confession box with stories about her sex life and how her parents were “thrown from a helicopter into the Atlantic Ocean when I was 3.”
It’s a scene-chewing performance in which she doesn’t bite off much. Diaz aims for preposterously ruthless but Scott does her no favors. She’s an oddball in a movie that’s already unsure of itself.
Such a film is an anomaly from a major studio. Already it’s garnering a lot of attention and even polarizing acclaim as a film so bizarre and daring in its themes as to be a classic. “The Counselor” is a unique animal with traces of brilliance in its performances, style and of course in McCarthy’s screenplay. None of it however goes above an obscene sight you can’t explain. Like Diaz’s centerpiece sex scene, it’s too strange to be sexy, alluring and memorable.