There are many signs that “The Counselor” is a ridiculous movie: the pseudo-intellectual philosophy spouted by various characters, including the leader of a Mexican drug cartel; Javier Bardem’s fright-wig hair; Cameron Diaz’s evil eyeliner, one of the primary identifying factors of her bad-girl character. But my favorites are the cheetahs.
Diaz plays a predatory blond named Malkina who has two cheetahs for pets. She decks them out in fancy collars and loves to watch them chase down and shred jackrabbits in the high desert of El Paso. Her admiring if somewhat clownish lover (Bardem) makes drinks and looks on in bemusement. If the eyeliner didn’t clue you in to her motivations, the cheetahs will.
“The Counselor” comes with expectations: It’s directed by Ridley Scott, with an impressive cast, which also includes Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz and Brad Pitt. Novelist Cormac McCarthy wrote the screenplay. If you’ve ever read his novels — “The Road,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Blood Meridian” — or even seen the films adapted from some of them, then you know to expect blood, violence, greed, nihilism and horrific deaths for at least 70 percent of the characters.
What you don’t expect is camp. “The Counselor” is more “Wild Things” than “No Country for Old Men,” with which it shares a border-town setting. But at least “Wild Things” knew what it was. “The Counselor” treats its material seriously and seems to have no idea it’s a joke that can’t even muster up a bit of smarty-pants Tarantino cleverness or energy.
The film follows the decision of an El Paso criminal defense attorney (Michael Fassbender) to venture into the high-stakes world of drug trafficking. In a bit of coy artiness, we never learn his name, just as we never learn the names of other players in the great drug-trafficking machine (the Buyer, the Jefe). “The Counselor,” as his partners call him, is in financial trouble, although he flies to Amsterdam to buy a diamond for his lady friend Laura (Penelope Cruz). They are very much in love. “I intend to love you until I die,” he tells her. She tells him that she hopes she dies first. You remember “The Road” and revel in the fact that though this is clearly not going to end well, at least there won’t be any cannibalism.
So the Counselor sets out to participate in a drug deal with his flashy pal Renier (Bardem). though the exact details of his involvement are murky. He picks the brain of another acquaintance, Westray (Brad Pitt), a high roller in the biz who wears a cowboy hat and thankfully injects a bit of playfulness into the movie. He also warns the Counselor about the dangers presented by working with a Mexican cartel. One would assume a criminal lawyer living just outside Juarez might already understand the risk, even if he hasn’t seen a single episode of “Breaking Bad,” but the Counselor is clueless — and surprised when everything goes wrong.
Just about everything goes wrong in Scott’s film, too, although Fassbender is solid and Bardem and Pitt are amusing. But the script does them no favors and is even harder on the women. One doesn’t expect enlightenment or female character development from McCarthy, but “The Counselor” offers nothing beyond over-the-top whore / madonna cliches. We know nothing about Laura except whom she sleeps with. Does she have a job? Family? Friends?
But Diaz gets the worst assignment as Malkina (who tells Renier, when he suggests her responses are cold: “I think the truth has no temperature”). She shocks Renier by having sex with his car while he sits stunned in the passenger seat. Renier’s description of the event, shown in flashback, is funny, but the sight of Diaz writhing on the windshield doesn’t help you share his horror. It just makes you feel sorry for Diaz and everybody else in this silly, affected, self-important movie.