Once upon a time there was a delightful play that spawned an equally delightful movie, both called ROZENCRANTZ AND GUILDERSTERN ARE DEAD. In it, two minor characters from Hamlet are given center stage, with the arch comedy suitable to the comic relief from a towering tragedy, as well as unexpectedly profound observations about the meaning of life. It certainly helped if you knew the plot of Hamlet, but ignorance of the play was no excuse for not enjoying Tom Stoppard’s flight of theatrical fancy. I bring all this up because while watching THE COUNSELOR, Cormac McCarthy’s first foray out of the business of writing novels and into that of writing screenplays, I got the distinct impression that somewhere, just off screen, the real story was taking place, leaving said screen filled with the asides, the circumlocutions, and the ancillary moments that, while adding color, do nothing to advance the actual story.
The eponymous counselor (played by Michael Fassbender, but deliberately unnamed for a touch of, honestly, I don’t know) for those with patience and an unflagging sense of hope that said patience will be rewarded, is eventually revealed to be a lawyer who has gotten into money trouble and is now taking part in a major drug deal in order to extricate himself and, perhaps, make a tidy bundle on the side. We never learn how he got into trouble, but in one of the film’s many digressions, we see him make a quick trip to Amsterdam in order to buy a diamond for his fetching girlfriend (Penelope Cruz). An uncertain grasp of the concept of budgeting obviously helped get this lawyer into his current pickle. Yet, t does provide an opportunity for high-minded pronouncements of the sort one finds it books, sometimes in reel life, and almost never in real life. Hence Bruno Ganz opines that a truly flawless diamond would be made of pure light before showing the lawyer what he describes as a “cautionary diamond.”
European dealers in gems as philosophers are one thing. Shady types in loud clothes and louder hair are another, and yet Javier Bardem as just such a type gives pause with his ponderings about the nature of women, and, as his predatory girlfriend, Cameron Diaz, tattooed with cheetah stripes and too much mascara, opines that truth has no temperature and, though unfamiliar with the process, attempts to make confession to an increasingly irritated, yet hunky, priest.
The kindest thing that can be said about THE COUNSELOR is that it is episodic, and that individual episodes are well-crafted. The lawyer’s visit to hard-bitten convict/client Rosie Perez is piquant, particularly when she offers to pay off a $400 debt by giving him a blow job, and he, without missing a beat tells her that she would still owe him $380. Or that curious bit of telephone soliloquy by Reuben Blades near the end, the one that sums up the lawyer’s situation by putting into a philosophical context as existential as anything Sartre came up with, and far more poetic. That we are never told who Blades is, and why he is talking to Fassbender, should at this point in the proceedings come as no surprise.
As for the rest, it is a simulacrum of profundity that moves from El Paso to Chicago to Amsterdam and to London for no better reason than it can. The sojourn in Boise, however, makes a little more sense, and the Boise Chamber of Commerce can be grateful that the general cheeriness of its population is so well represented. And there there’s Brad Pitt, who meets with Fassbinder a few times to knock back a brew or a cup of Joe, sometimes speaking obliquely, sometimes directly, but always with a smooth sense of cool, even when describing the content of a snuff film he’s heard about.
Never mind trying to follow the plot. Perhaps that wasn’t the point, though the suspense of having a story that supports seeing Fassbender fall so completely to pieces would have been at least as satisfying as seeing how manly he is even when weeping copious tears at several points in the film. Perhaps it’s all a big metaphor, which makes the device of using a sewage tanker to transport the millions in drugs everyone is after unintentionally hilarious.