“The Counselor,” Reviewed: All Talk, All The Time.

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Reflective men often find themselves at a place where they are removed from the realities of life.” That line is uttered late in Ridley Scott’s The Counselor (rated R, for extreme violence, sexuality, drugs and language), in a conversation between a drug lord (Ruben Blades) and the eponymous lead character (Michael Fassbender), who’s gotten himself and those around him in a speck of trouble. The quote separates the men from the boys, as it were, by suggesting that the power to act on what’s really going on, rather than dwell on the way things ought to be, is the greatest strength one can have. It’s also mind-blowingly ironic, coming from a film whose screenplay consists entirely of characters responding to the world falling down around their ears by talk, talk, talking about it.

The Counselor has drawn wildly mixed critical reactions: Many reviewers are writing it off as a colossal failure, while others defend its peculiar choices as manifestations of a fierce commitment to exotic intellectualism. The common thread in all these reviews is the screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, a novelist whose books (including “The Road” and “No Country for Old Men”) offer glimpses into a harsh, unrelenting worldview of nihilism and anger. McCarthy is a gifted visualist of worlds that are fascinating to read about but that no one would ever want to live in. He’s also – based on this, his first-ever original script – an absolutely terrible writer for the screen. Whatever else producer/director Scott may have done right in The Counselor, he owns the decision to move forward with the McCarthy script – to allow all those words to come out of these characters’ mouths. It’s a crippling mistake in what could have been a seductive dark thriller.

The plot is simple, and fine: The Counselor – we never learn his name – is a lawyer whose expensive lifestyle prompts him to foolishly get involved in one of his client’s (Javier Bardem) drug deals. The deal goes sideways, and The Counselor’s unwitting fingerprints are all over it. Bad people come after him, everyone he’s been working with, and Laura (Penelope Cruz), the woman he loves. Honestly, that’s about it – a lean plot that could make for a taut, powerful cautionary tale about Avoiding Temptation. But what could have been a potent 90-minute lark becomes a two-hour slog, thanks to the tangential conversations tacked on to every scene.

The Counselor asks Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt) for advice about this nasty business he’s about to enter into. They both advise him against it, while throwing in a few thousand words apiece about the nature of evil. Later, as things fall apart, he asks them for help; they reply with a few thousand more words about the inevitability of retribution and betrayal. When The Counselor is hiding in lawless Juarez, Mexico, he asks a bartender if it’s safe to go outside. The barman responds with a monologue about what it means to fear death. Later still, when Pitt tries to pick up a woman in a hotel lobby, it turns into an uncomfortable back-and-forth about the fact that he’s asked her to have a drink with him. I swear, if someone in this movie were to ask someone else for the time, they’d get a lecture about how watches work.

The whole film is like this. It becomes kind of funny after a while. Every character, no matter their situation or their seeming educational background, is more interested in chatting about Deep Thoughts than in simply exchanging information in a way that might otherwise move things along. This ultimately leads to a serious case of not caring a whit for what these people go through, which is ironic in a movie that has some pretty lurid fates befall its characters. But we’re numbed by all the chatter.

Frustratingly, there are things to like about The Counselor. Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski have created a painterly view of their characters’ world: even the ugly scenes are still compelling to look at. Bardem and Pitt contribute polished performances, and Cameron Diaz, playing Reiner’s thoroughly unlikable girlfriend, exudes venom as a rhymes-with-witch caricature that perfectly fits her unexpectedly substantial role in the plot. Fassbender is less successful; his trademark inscrutability here works against him, as we never can figure out if he’s meant to be sympathetic or just a big amoral creep who deserves his eventual comeuppance.

But good and bad performances are rendered equally inert in The Counselor, whose black hole of a screenplay swallows everything it touches. With luck, after this Cormac McCarthy will stick to writing apocalyptic novels instead of movie scripts that merely make us wish for the end of the world.

(IMAGE: Fassbender and Cruz in The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott; courtesy of 20th Century Fox.)