"The Counselor" is written by Cormac McCarthy with the sort of grim, existentially weary atmosphere one might expect, but it's directed by Ridley Scott like a wild grindhouse picture. Until this mixed bag of entertainment value came along, I was ready to crown "Killing Season," wherein a neckbearded John Travolta sports a terrible Serbian accent while hunting aged militant Robert De Niro, as this year's top guilty pleasure. But "The Counselor," which also features an impressive set of stars wrestling with inherently silly material, offers a far more satisfactory combination of ridiculous characterizations and bleak showdowns. It's a familiar world of secular finality littered with absurd and eccentric extremes: "No Country For Old Men" on a bender.
McCarthy's first screenplay involves the downward spiral in the life of a high-rolling lawyer (Michael Fassbender, in a nameless role) who inhabits a cozy, affluent existence with his fiancee (Penelope Cruz) until a sudden miscommunication with one of his jailed clients puts him on the hit list of the Mexican drug cartel. But it takes a good hour for that crucial plot point to arrive; until then, Scott and McCarthy create an absorbing environment of slick, maniacal personalities relishing in their affluence. Chief among them is embezzling drug lord Reiner (Javier Bardem, nearly one-upping his slimy turn as last year's Bond villain), who enjoys a hard-partying lifestyle with his sultry, Lady Macbeth-like femme fatale partner Malkina (Cameron Diaz, inexplicably slipping in and out of a Latina accent). Then there's the smooth-talking Westray (Brad Pitt), a middleman who works with the Counselor when his clients' illegal dealings cause trouble.
While obviously not as far-reaching at Scott's last filmmaking outing, "Prometheus," there's a certain alien dimension to the world in which Scott roots these characters: As later scenes make clear, the movie's male leads live in a bubble of hedonism away from the deadly ramifications of their actions... until the cartel decides to take action against them. The bloody results include a terrifically executed shootout and a handful of grisly death scenes, including more than one inventive means of mutilation.
But McCarthy's script counteracts these flashes of intensity with hilariously extreme lyrical tangents and curiously theatrical wordplay. In one of these, the Counselor finds himself entangled in a prolonged discussion with a philosophically minded crime boss who sounds like he's read too much Nietzsche ("The extinction of all reality is a concept no resignation can encompass"). Then there's the self-consciously wacky and erotic monologue delivered by Barden's spiky-haired philanderer as he recalls the time Diaz's sultry Malkina humped his windshield, leading to a fish-behind-the-glass metaphor that makes for one of the more amusing standalone sequences of the year.
So, yes, "The Counselor" has its fair share of outlandish tangents and cartoonish overstatement as it outlines the lives of bored, neurotic people divorced from the harshness of the real world. But unlike, say, "The Canyons" -- another movie released this year to take a stab at dreary portraiture -- "The Counselor" carries a winking quality to the way it frames excess and the fallout.
Scott remains a keen director of intimate drama that works in spite of the material's inherently ludicrous ingredients, and McCarthy's capacity to find the poetry in disarray transcends the messiness of the material -- to a point. Undoubtedly one of the weirder, narratively sophisticated adult dramas released by a major studio this year, "The Counselor" is also just enjoyable enough to hint at the unrealized potential of the main talent behind its creation.
As it happens, "The Counselor" arrives in theaters this week at the same time as another slick movie about the marriage of corruption and economic drive. "Capital," French octogenarian filmmaker Costa-Gavras' enjoyably twisted look at a banking mogul's rise to power, similarly documents the endlessly destructive machinations of men in suits. Gad Elmaleh stars as shifty Marc Tourneuil, the newly minted CEO of a global financial powerhouse thrust into the position when his aging boss falls ill. While much of the board roots for Marc to fail so they can plant a replacement, Marc decides to please overseas shareholders by laying off half the company.
Drunk on authority, he grows increasingly attracted to a freewheeling lifestyle epitomized by his attraction to the seductive model Nassim (Liya Kebede), a drug-guzzling partier who makes Diaz's Malkina in "The Counselor" look relatively conservative in her ways. Gavras is getting up there, but "Capital" feels like the opposite of an old man's film and utterly in tune with the director's other studies of political disarray ("Z," "State of Siege").
The new movie falters when it fails to build on a scenario established fairly early on, but acutely hovers in disharmony, particularly once the pace grows increasingly frenetic with its depiction of Marc's crazed, dictatorial mindset. The director routinely illustrates his anti-hero's fantasies of lashing out at anyone challenging his word, including one particularly shocking moment when he literally reaches into a video conference call to assault a condescending colleague.
Despite these sudden bursts of violence, "The Capital" maintains a firm sense of realism. Unlike "Counselor," Gavras never forces the material into allegorical turf; it's a relatively straightforward look at the ramifications of getting blinded by dollar signs, with perhaps one of the most clearly defined visions of economic depravity since "Wall Street."
Emphasizing that connection perhaps a little too bluntly, "Capital" has its own version of Gordon Gekko's famed "greed is good" speech, here delivered to a roomful of shareholders and revolving around the notion of banking executives as inverted Robin Hoods funneling money upward to the open arms of the one percent. Despite the transparency of its ideas, "Capital" provides a fascinating thematic contrast to this week's biggest release: While "The Counselor" finds the villains of socioeconomic imbalance lurking in the shadows, "Capital" shows them hiding in plain sight.
"The Counselor": B
"The Capital": B+
HOW WILL THEY PLAY? Fox releases "The Counselor" nationwide on Friday where its genre appeal and A-list cast should attract solid box office on an otherwise weak weekend for big new releases (the only real competition is latest "Jackass" film). However, its commercial prospects are likely to drop off quickly due to mixed word of mouth and other releases in the pipeline. Cohen Media Group opens "Capital" in New York this weekend, where it's unlikely to generate much attention, though could wind up doing solid business in ancillary markets.