For his first original screenplay, "The Counselor," acclaimed novelist Cormac McCarthy goes for classic Hollywood: It's a noir. It features a central sucker, a femme fatale, a good woman, colorful crooks and expendable thugs. It's directed by Ridley Scott, one of cinema's great stylists, and features a cherry-picked cast of A-list stars. What could go wrong?
As it turns out, everything.
"The Counselor" is a disaster on nearly every level, but it all starts with McCarthy's muddled, mean-spirited screenplay. It's about an attorney known only as Counselor (Michael Fassbender), who joins a drug deal with nightclub owner Reiner (Javier Bardem) and slick kingpin Westray (Brad Pitt). We're not sure what motivates him, but the Counselor does spend lavishly on his fiancee, Laura (Penélope Cruz). Meanwhile, snaking through the scenery is Malkina (Cameron Diaz), a kinky ice queen with leopard-print tattoos. When things go south, the Counselor finds himself running from -- well, we don't know, and we never see them.
The actors try to shine through this murk (Bardem and Pitt almost succeed), but there's no digging out from under McCarthy's script, written in an ear-halting mix of Biblical brimstone, arcane verbiage and Philosophy 101. Filmmakers have successfully wrestled his novels onto the screen (the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men," John Hillcoat's "The Road") by paring them down and locating the visual ideas within, but Scott ("Alien," "Blade Runner") oddly does the opposite. Scott simply lets the characters talk, talk, talk. They describe death and sex and torture in flowery, thesaurus-driven prose ("surety," "easeful"), while all we see are their yakking faces.
As "The Counselor" nears its end, it begins flailing and lashing out. Characters are murdered for unclear reasons and new ones appear without warning. "The Counselor" presents us with an ugly worldview, but that is not the same as philosophical bravery. The movie's real failing is easy to pinpoint: It's unforgivably boring.
PLOT An attorney with sleazeball clients unwisely decides to join their ranks.
RATING R (violence, language)
CAST Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt.
BOTTOM LINE Tons of talent make a lead balloon in this dull, nearly unwatchable would-be thriller.