The first line of The Counselor, written for the screen by novelist Cormac McCarthy, is "Are you awake?" I'm betting more than a few people will also hear that line at the end of the movie, but spoken by a theater usher.
In terms of anticipation, The Counselor comes high. The first produced feature-film screenplay for the author of No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian and The Road indeed qualifies as an event. In a way, that status is only buoyed by the finished product being the oddest multiplex release of the year. It's well-appointed, with stars Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, and Penelope Cruz, as well as a top-tier production team headed by director Ridley Scott. But man oh man, is The Counselor ponderous.
Michael Fassbender plays the otherwise unnamed title character, awoken in that first scene by his loving bedmate Laura (Cruz). Outside is the U.S.-Mexico border, and a world of trouble for the lawyer when he decides, for reasons left elliptical, to "break bad" and invest in a drug-smuggling operation. This puts him in bed with downlow drug lord Reiner (Bardem) and his girlfriend Malkina (Diaz), as well as practiced middleman Westray (Pitt).
What goes down in The Counselor can be kinky (Diaz's bisexual vamp has a thing for leopards), and it can be perversely violent (creatively going for the jugular qualifies as a motif), but on the whole it's curiously flat. Constructed primarily out of various verbal pas de deux, the picture should be catnip for fans of McCarthy and the cast, emphasis on the "should." The miscalculation of Scott and most of his cast—that poker-faced understatement was the way to go—just goes to show that this kind of material needs the self-aware edge the Coen Brothers brought to No Country for Old Men.
At least Bardem grins like a jackal (most of the time), and Pitt has a twinkle in his eye while langorously delivering McCarthy's preposterous existentialist dialogue. But mostly all the knotty talk goes over like a lead balloon. As wry as The Counselor can be in its best moments, it's more often numbing. People don't talk in this movie; they spout. Eyes will roll. And roll. And roll back into your head as you listen to Cameron Diaz wrap her head around lines like "It is our faintness of heart that has driven us to the edge of ruin." Poor Ruben Blades has a scene that plays like he's been forced at gunpoint to narrate an audiobook.
But McCarthy isn't a total madman. He knows he has to take a break from being pretentious as all get out, in order to deliver some lurid kicks: whether they be ultra-sexual or ultra-violent, they tend toward the deliberately laughable, with characters going to bizarre lengths to get someone off or kill them. Life may be meaningless, but Cameron Diaz doing the (commando) splits on your windshield makes for a momentary distraction. I think we can all agree on that. Maybe The Counselor would get by if it metaphorically had more to say instead of literally having so much to say. As it is, you'll relate to the characters who say, "Why are you telling me this?"