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The Counselor seems to have everything going for it. A-listers like Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, and Brad Pitt star. It was directed by action/adventure guru Ridley Scott and even penned by literary heavyweight Cormac McCarthy. I sat down in the theater ready to be blown away - expecting all the emotional twists and turns of No Country for Old Men with, based on the trailer, a dash more of modernity and humor. Instead, I walked out with a distinct feeling of frustration.

The Counselor tells the story of a high-flown attorney (Fassbender), referred to only by the title “Counselor” throughout the film. He proposes to his sweet and trusting girlfriend, Laura (Cruz), and the two seem headed toward marital bliss until the Counselor gets tangled in a lucrative but shady drug deal with his client Reiner (Bardem) and Reiner’s girlfriend, Malkina (Diaz). The Counselor receives both advice and warning from middleman Westray (Pitt), but even Westray’s ominous allusions to downfall don’t stop the Counselor from continuing along his road to perdition.

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That’s the setup. Where the film fails is in the unfolding of that otherwise riveting moral dilemma. McCarthy’s famously muscular prose falls flat on screen; dialogue is horribly stilted, with characters slugging back and forth with heavily allegorical one-liners instead of engaging in realistic conversation. Scenes build tension, but their intensity peters out as they drag on and on in their attempt to beat underlying themes into viewers. This awkward weightiness seems at odds with the film’s vibrant cinematography and (attempted) fast-paced nature.

The sad part is, The Counselor could have been a great film. I’ve been fascinated with Michael Fassbender ever since 2011’s A Dangerous Method and Jane Eyre, and he doesn’t disappoint. The cool and composed Counselor is right up his dramatic alley, but when crisis calls for it, Fassbender also reveals a surprisingly earnest emotional side. Bardem is hilarious as the flamboyant Reiner, and Pitt serves as an effective foil as the dead-serious Westray. The characters are well played, but the film’s identity crisis prevents viewers from fully sympathizing with them. The Counselor wants to be about greed, corruption, deception, brutality; it also tries to straddle the lines between heist film, Western, thriller, and dark comedy. However, it pushes these themes and identities via heavy-handed dialogue and symbolism, which makes us lose interest in the characters and causes most of the film’s intended effects to fall flat.

Verdict? Meh. While The Counselor doesn’t live up to No Country for Old Men (which was based on a best-selling McCarthy novel), this was McCarthy’s first screenplay since 1976, and I’d be interested in seeing more of his work on screen. More Michael Fassbender wouldn’t hurt, either.

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