My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were a financial flop, critical failure, or lack a substantial cult following.
As a culture, we have a rapt fascination with, and deep reverence for, artists who refuse to play the publicity game, who communicate to the world through their art and not shrill self-promotion. Cormac McCarthy is one of the rare authors who have successfully been able to retain an air of mystery at a time when writers are expected to engage in a never-ending game of brutal self-disclosure. He submits to so few interviews that when McCarthy agreed to be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in 2007 it was a bona fide pop culture event. This was not just any television personality or just any author, and in the years since, McCarthy has moved away from recluse status and tentatively made inroads into the mainstream while retaining his position as a J.D Salinger-like genius too brilliant for the nonsense games of marketing and publicity.
A big catalyst for this was the release of No Country For Old Men, the Coen brothers’ rapturously received, multiple-Oscar-winning adaptation of McCarthy’s bleak novel. The movie’s success helps obscure what a staggeringly odd film it was. If No Country For Old Men had landed wrong, if it had not managed such a hypnotic tone of bone-dry dread and pitch-black humor, then it would have looked utterly ridiculous. If the Coens hadn’t perfectly adapted McCarthy’s book, everything about its villain would seem campy, overwrought, and unintentionally hilarious: his name (Anton Chigurh), his murder weapon (bolt gun), and his Prince Valiant haircut.
Perhaps emboldened by No Country’s success, McCarthy did something unexpected: He wrote an original screenplay, his first in years. Not surprisingly, it attracted remarkable talent: Academy Award-winning director Ridley Scott, Academy Award-winner Javier Bardem, Academy Award-winner Penelope Cruz, Academy Award-winner Brad Pitt, Academy Award-nominee Michael Fassbender, and Cameron Diaz, who has never been nominated for an Oscar but has four Golden Globes nominations, which can actually be traded in for one Oscar.
Expectations for The Counselor were appropriately high. It was exciting enough that, deep into his auspicious career, a seventysomething Cormac McCarthy had written an original screenplay; the prestige of his collaborators made the film an even more exciting proposition. Then the film debuted and the response was scathing. In a not atypical reaction, Salon dubbed the film the worst ever made. Much of the criticism was focused on its most memorable scene, which involves a femme fatale played with delirious abandon by Cameron Diaz having sex with a car. That’s right: The Counselor is a movie in which Cameron Diaz has sex with an expensive automobile.
How is that possible, you might ask? Well, the Diaz character’s boyfriend, Reiner (Javier Bardem), is super-excited about his new sports car, so one drunken night she climbs atop it, does the splits, and grinds herself against the windshield until she achieves orgasm in one of the purest and most visually punny representations of auto-eroticism ever committed to film.
Diaz’s flamboyant act of self-pleasure is so extreme and transgressive that it even manages to freak out and confuse Bardem’s character, an outlaw intimately acquainted with murder, beheadings, and all manner of violent nastiness. While recounting this anecdote to a lawyer known only as the Counselor (Michael Fassbender), Reiner reflects that the display was “too gynecological to be sexy.” The morbidly fascinated lawyer asks his friend if Malkina (Diaz) achieved orgasm through her car-humping, which I think is just rude. Hasn’t he ever heard of something called privacy? A lady might have sex with a car, but if he were truly a gentleman, Reiner would have kept things classy by not revealing whether she climaxed.
The film did much better abroad. Europeans thought that The Counselor was fine enough as a docudrama-style account of the everyday lives of typical Americans, but that it didn’t go far enough. Sure, most Americans begin each day by having sex with an expensive car, but why didn’t it also show them eating bacon and firing machine guns while they were at it? Then again, considering how preposterously, ridiculously, enjoyably over-the-top The Counselor actually is, a scene involving simultaneous auto-eroticism, machine-gun firing, and bacon-devouring would not have felt at all out of place.
Fassbender, who was just starting to star in every movie made at the time The Counselor went into production, plays a lawyer introduced making passionate love to his girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), in a giant house. Laura isn’t just enraptured with her boyfriend; she is enthralled by him sexually.
The Counselor’s life is great, but it’s not quite perfect. He does not yet have the money to buy Laura an engagement ring worthy of her beauty and his intense love for her. So this sharply dressed quasi-innocent decides to dabble in the drug game. Reiner and his gangster moll girlfriend are the Counselor’s entryway into the shadowy world of drug cartels, smuggling, assassinations, and snuff films.
At every step along the way, our hero’s new collaborators warn him of the incredible danger he faces if he chooses to leave behind his comparatively uncomplicated life for the seedy glamour and excitement of the drug trade. Reiner stops just short of telling him that if he decides to dabble in drugs there is a 99 percent chance that he’ll end up dead, possibly with his head separated from his torso. A little later, another shadowy underworld figure, played by a ponytail-sporting Brad Pitt, warns the Counselor that he’s entering a world where beheadings, torture, and murder through eccentric contraptions are commonplace.
Consequently, Fassbinder is playing an extremely passive protagonist. His role is less to be a charismatic catalyst than to be perpetually schooled on the inveterate cruelty and viciousness of existence by a series of more interesting and colorful underworld figures. In that respect, he is a typical film noir or neo-noir protagonist. He’s a patsy, a clueless chump in the mold of William Hurt in Body Heat, the film that kicked off the new wave of neo-noirs and that is referenced in the dialogue here.
It’s difficult to feel much sympathy for a man who is continually told that he is making a terrible mistake that will almost assuredly result in his destruction, and also quite possibly the destruction of everyone and everything he loves, yet who continues to pursue that path regardless. But as the cruel, vengeful God of The Counselor’s bleak universe, Cormac McCarthy isn’t necessarily asking us to sympathize with the character. In true noir tradition, the question isn’t whether the patsy at the center of the action will get away with his crime, but rather how and when he will be punished, and how brutal the punishment will be.
The Counselor feels like the first sleazy, glorified drive-in movie pitched exclusively to people with post-graduate degrees in philosophy and literary theory. I can’t recall the last film I saw that played both sides of the high-low culture divide so aggressively and shamelessly.
The film’s plot and atmosphere are unrelentingly sleazy and debauched; we’re presented with a hazy world of shocking brutality, pure evil, and destroyed lives. Yet the characters seem to have entered into an unspoken agreement that they would only discuss their lives and their conflicts in the broadest, grandest philosophical terms. The lowlives in The Counselor do not talk like regular people. As its God, McCarthy has ordained that all of his characters should talk in the same loftily philosophical, portentous voice.
Early in the film, the Counselor visits what would be an unusually philosophical diamond merchant in any other film, but is merely average in his philosophizing here. He’s told, as part of an extremely writerly rant about how it is the very imperfections and flaws in diamonds that define them and give them their character and value, “We announce to the darkness that we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives.” That only makes slightly more sense in context.
Later on, a typically philosophical drug kingpin played by Rubén Blades tells the Counselor, who is beginning to understand the extent to which he is fucked, “The extinction of all reality is a concept no resignation can encompass.”
As an actress, Cameron Diaz has long been defined by her fearlessness. From Being John Malkovich to Bad Teacher and The Other Woman, she has habitually gone places attractive actresses with considerable box-office clout have feared to tread. She’s never been afraid to look ugly, or be unsympathetic, crazy, and over-the-top. In that respect, everything she’s done feels like a warm-up for her role here, which takes that fearlessness to the limit and beyond. It is no insult to say that her performance is excessive and stylized to the point of almost being Kabuki-like in its artificiality. The scene where she makes sweet love to the car is an enduring testament to her boldness as a performer. Bardem’s character is understandably freaked out; he realizes that as long as she is around, no motorcycle, station wagon, or Vespa is safe from her insatiable erotic demands.
If Cruz and Fassbender are comparatively colorless and bland, Bardem and Diaz have enough crazy personality for a dozen insane potboilers. Bardem seems to have taken his fashion cues from a “cool” middle-schooler in an early 1990s cartoon, with a weakness for oversized tinted glasses, a heavily moussed hairstyle that suggests he’s perpetually suffering the effects of static shock, and a series of screamingly loud shirts.
For all its faults and insane overreaching—seldom has a sleazy melodrama announced its aspirations to art so boldly and insistently—The Counselor is compelling as a wild and audacious take on neo-noir, though it replaces the dark shadows and intimacy of classic noir for bright lighting and an epic scope in keeping with the rest of director Ridley Scott’s filmography. Scott and his cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski, shoot Fassbender in a way that highlights how small and insignificant he is in the grand scheme of things, continually putting him in his place.
The Counselor got under my skin. Though it is obviously rooted in McCarthy’s writing and worldview, it is utterly unique for reasons that go beyond its exploration of car-fucking. Early in the film, Bardem tells Fassbender that you can do anything to a woman except bore her. The Counselor, accordingly, does just about everything to its women and its men, but its saving grace is that it’s never boring. Crazy? Sure. Wildly excessive? Of course. Tedious? Never.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Secret Success