"The Counselor" is a movie with sex on the brain, but nowhere else.
It opens with Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz in bed together after what is supposed to be a marathon lovemaking session, but director Ridley Scott films the first part of this scene so that they are totally covered by white sheets, as if they were mummies. The sepulchral feeling this image evokes only increases when he goes under those covers and we see them reciting Cormac McCarthy's gaudy, stiff, pretentious dialogue. Thus what might seem like a surefire thing, a love scene between two of the most charismatic and attractive actors in movies today, turns into something odd, distant and vaguely embarrassing.
This is a movie that does not seem overly interested in its own plot, which involves a drug deal gone bad. What it is interested in, unfortunately, is lots of inert scenes in which McCarthy allows his characters to pontificate at length about Big Issues like death, love, money, despair, family and many other things. McCarthy is one of our most acclaimed American novelists, and though he has written some original screenplays over the years, "The Counselor" is the first one to get produced. What works for him in a novel cannot be said to work for him here.
The dialogue in "The Counselor" might kindly be termed "heightened," or it might unkindly be termed the most self-consciously significant gabbing since the days of Paddy Chayefsky. Javier Bardem, who plays a flamboyantly dressed drug king, is stuck with several lengthy monologues about the mysteries of women that should have been severely cut or dropped entirely. As his self-styled intellectual mistress, Cameron Diaz pouts and struts around looking sultry, sometimes smiling to show off a gold tooth. When she talks about her bloodlust and Bardem tells her that she sounds cold, Diaz replies, "Truth has no temperature."
"The Counselor" slides into full-on unintentional hilarity when Diaz goes to church and tries to vamp a priest in the confessional. "I think that women might make up sexy things to tell you just to make you crazy," she purrs. "Don't you think that's possible?"
The camp-o-meter rises to a "Showgirls" level in the scene where Bardem tells Fassbender about the time that Diaz had sex with his Ferrari, which is accompanied by a flashback of Diaz (or her stunt double) doing a split on the car window and humping it while Bardem sits stunned in his seat. "Don't even think I'm making this up," Bardem says. "You can't make this up!" Poor Fassbender just looks confused, as he does throughout; this is his first really bad performance.
Bardem enjoys himself as much as he can, while Cruz does fine work in the film's worst role, a loyal wife who doesn't seem to know what's going on with her husband. Diaz gives a performance that suggests that English might be her second language, but even the most skilled actress would have huge trouble putting over the lines McCarthy has handed her, particularly her last big speech about the cruel nature of man.
"Life is being in bed with you," Fassbender tells Cruz on the phone. "Everything else is just waiting." This sounds like something an emo teenaged boy would say to his first girlfriend, not the work of one of our most esteemed writers of fiction. Aside from a few odd editing choices, Scott directs this wordy script competently, in a very English way of just pretending not to notice how ludicrous it is and focusing instead on the kind of swanky visuals that might be found in a Bacardi Rum commercial.
The fact that the man who wrote "Blood Meridian," one of the very finest modern novels, is also the man who wrote "The Counselor" is a cause for puzzlement. The film might be a real hoot if everyone had gone over the top, but the actors all seem too awkward and uneasy for that to really happen. It's as if they're all thinking, "Wait, is this script by Cormac McCarthy really as bad as it sounds?" Yes, it is.