By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
“The Counselor,” director Ridley Scott’s awkwardly convoluted, displeasuring homage to the dark side of humanity, sent me back to the scene of an embarrassing literary faux pas, sophomore year in high school. Disenchanted with John O’Hara’s collection of short stories, “Pipe Night,” I informed in my book review that it was ennuous.
That’s right…it’s wrong. There is no adjective form for ennui, the French derived word for boredom which I had probably just learned somewhere. While President Warren Harding was given dispensation for his usage of “normalcy” instead of normality in his campaign plea for a “return to normalcy,” Mr. David Stamelman, my great and encouraging English teacher, accorded me no such pardon.
Correcting me, he kindly used neither the terms pretentious nor sophomoric. But I knew the score: Belles-Lettres 1, Mike 0.
Well, as director Ridley Scott is well past sophomore year, I have no compunction about according him a scarlet P for pretentiousness. What an absolutely horrible, misbegotten blight on the motion picture landscape this is. To its dubious credit, the jam-packed dumpster of ugly notions, like a pervading stench you can’t quite shake, has yet to fully dissipate from my consciousness.
But no, this presumptuous, sinister delve into bad taste about an ambitious Texas lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who wants to get in on the big bucks being glommed by the drug cartel hombres just across the border, is not ennuous. More correctly, it will cause you much ennui. In fact, I was compelled to check my watch a full five times during the course of the oppressive discomfort … a modern day record for me.
Yep, that was me murmuring, “Please let it end, please.” Still, because of a liberal optimism contradictorily coupled with that distasteful trait that causes us to rubberneck whilst passing a traffic accident, there was a strange mesmerization occurring, too. It becomes clear early on that Mr. Scott, working from a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy, wishes to say something about the nature of evil.
Unfortunately, just what he means to say about it is not at all clear, and I dare opine, eludes him as well. Thus, as the title character, played with a murky moodiness by Michael Fassbender, wends his way through a Dante’s Inferno of drug lords, intercessors and just plain seedy wrongdoers, one can’t help but conclude that, consciously or not, this movie celebrates a fatalistic pessimism.
You know, abandon hope all ye who enter here…meaning everybody, even the powerbrokers who, after subjugating everyone they can for as long as they can, will eventually face their comeuppance. In other words, just what you look for in an evening’s entertainment….especially if you’re a complete paranoid.
It’s a bruising panoply of non-stop bad behavior, where to be good is ostensibly to be a victim…lorded over by those powers that be in a hopeless maelstrom of heartless, law of the jungle ambiguity.
Oh, and there’s lots of money, decadence and glitzy appurtenances. The Counselor, who may or not be in financial straits due to a lavish lifestyle, tools around in a Bentley convertible. The semi-kingpin pal (Javier Bardem) who facilitates the deal our lawyer makes with the Devil has at least two Ferraris, one of which is sexually molested by his gal pal, Malkina, treacherously exacted by Cameron Diaz. Yeah, that kind of depravity.
The action is slow to unreel. Director Scott prefers to torture his audience with long, lethargic monologues from each principal. It all foments into a Greek chorus foretelling of the doom that must follow. Unless one emanates from very dysfunctional circumstances, you’ll agree the pontificators are hardly qualified to expound on anything but their degeneracy.
You can cut the posturing with a meat cleaver, about the only weapon missing from what ultimately fulminates into a gratuitous blood bath. The best piece of absurd pomposity comes from the shady big cheese (Rubén Blades) of this snake-filled underworld. When begged for mercy by a tragically wretched casualty of the drug wars, he disingenuously philosophizes ad nauseam as if he were Descartes. What disgusting chutzpah.
One apologist in my gym’s sauna, where everyone becomes a pundit, explained that the film’s value lies in its cautionary message: Don’t deal drugs. Duh! I sadly contend that those so-inclined will only see this aberrant contemptuousness as glorification, not deterrent.
That noted, in-between staccato bits of graphic violence, we normal, law-abiding folks are stupefied. We can’t fathom how so fine a group of talents—Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz and Penélope Cruz—led by such an indisputably accomplished director could ferment such a perfect storm of putridity. Nah, I thought of that. Not even money could blind you to the absolute defenselessness of “The Counselor.”
“The Counselor,” rated R, is a Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation release directed by Ridley Scott and stars Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz. Running time: 117 minutes