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"Be careful about getting in over your head" is a simple message that's common in life, in movies, and certainly in The Counselor. This drama has a terrific cast in a very formulaic story.
The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) seems to have it all: rich friends, extravagant lifestyle, and a beautiful girlfriend named Laura (Penelope Cruz), for whom he buys a very expensive diamond engagement ring. But he's also getting involved with his friends -- the carefree Reiner (Javier Bardem) and the far more cautious Westray (Brad Pitt) -- with a huge deal involving a Mexican drug cartel and a cocaine shipment worth millions. Despite Reiner and Westray trying to scare the Counselor with tales of how ruthless the cartel is, the Counselor is all in. And Malkina (Cameron Diaz), Reiner's girlfriend from Barbados, is a sexual, amoral, greedy being who Reiner rightly fears is smarter than him.
Of course, the drug deal quickly goes south, as the shipment (hidden in an old sewage truck) keeps switching hands. The Counselor panicks, as his confidence and friends quickly abandon him. And those horror stories about the cartel weren't exaggerated...
The Counselor is a fairly ordinary movie. With a screenplay from Cormac McCarthy (whose No Country for Old Men was far superior), we wind up with a protagonist who spends the whole movie running around not knowing what to do. There are plenty of contrasts -- the innocent Laura and the scheming Malkina, the seemingly expensive world of the main characters and the dirty poverty of those handling the truck with its dangerous, expensive cargo -- but in the end it's watching someone dabbling in a dangerous world he's unprepared to handle. The cast is very good, yet their roles are pretty one-dimensional. And the movie's frequent departures into theories and philosophy (including a discussion with a cartel leader that's all about creating worlds) often feels quite artificial. The Counselor has some interesting elements, such as the contrasts and often telling instead of showing what could happen, but it's still pretty routine.