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'The Counselor' review: The chatty emperor's sexy new clothes

** (out of four)

Better described as “Fun with Words and Beheadings,” “The Counselor” attempts a crafty bait-and-switch experiment: Will audiences salivate so thoroughly at a delectable cast and the tart language of novelist/first-time screenwriter Cormac McCarthy (“No Country for Old Men,” “The Road”) that nobody notices this lovely vase is empty?

Indeed, some may be unable to handle a naked Cameron Diaz (in a towel, sort of) rubbing Penelope Cruz’s arm while talking about sex or Michael Fassbender dreamily assuring Cruz, “Life is being in bed with you; everything else is just waiting.” Most, though, will see a film that has a little fun toying with the audience until eventually just halfheartedly playing with itself. The unnamed title character (Fassbender) seems to have it all, if you define that as a lucrative legal career and a stunning, kind woman (Cruz) whose church-going values hardly carry over to the bedroom. Yet the Counselor so severely wants more that he’s willing to partner up on a Juarez club and drug deal with Reiner (Javier Bardem), a nearly orange shadeball whose shock of hair looks like it tried running in the opposite direction.

McCarthy and director Ridley Scott (re-teaming with Fassbender after the beautiful but narratively challenged “Prometheus”) omit any explanation behind the Counselor’s risky choice outside standard greed and naiveté. In fact, the “why” and “how” behind much of “The Counselor” (which also co-stars Brad Pitt) remains vague while the characters’ velvety language goes from lively to tiresome. “We announce to the darkness that we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives,” a jeweler tells the Counselor during a ring-shopping endeavor. Come on! Movie characters can speak with the vibrancy and personality that viewers may not, but there’s cool and then too cool.

I never thought a movie with this pedigree would remind me of “Dawson’s Creek.”

At times, “The Counselor” is hot enough to burn an iron. Diaz is successfully weird as a gold-toothed, cheetah-tattooed, car-humping (!) mystery woman from Barbados, and the endless jabber about life and death makes a point that, even in a loving relationship not threatened by international cartels, the lucky ones die first and painlessly. Most of the movie just fixates on obscuring its story, over-spicing its dialogue and finding different ways to detach head from body. If only “The Counselor” appealed to both.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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