The Counselor and Don Jon: Bad sex and good porn

Ridley Scott's "The Counselor" is the first film written by Cormac McCarthy, a mismatch which may remain the industry standard for years to come. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut "Don Jon", looks subtle by comparison.

The Counselor (18); Don Jon (18)
dir: Ridley Scott; dir: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

A debut need not be the product of a newcomer, as demonstrated by two films in which veterans of one discipline try their luck in another. The novelist Cormac McCarthy hasn’t been short of attention from cinema: John Hillcoat made a fine, harrowing film of The Road and there were middling versions of No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses. But The Counselor marks the first time that McCarthy’s name has appeared in the opening credits under “Written by”, rather than “Adapted from”. The spare, singed stoicism and bitter poison one might expect from his pen risks being detoxified by the “Directed by Ridley Scott” that follows. This may stand as cinema’s foremost mismatch until the day that Lars von Trier adapts Jilly Cooper.

The Counselor has the studied cynicism of a Bond novel and the high gloss of a Bond movie. It even features a pantomime villain with a predilection for exotic pets – Malkina (Cameron Diaz), whose hobbies include keeping cheetahs, being some kind of unspecified drugs overlord, intimidating her boyfriend (Javier Bardem in a Green Day fright-wig) and cleaning car windscreens in a novel way. How shall I put this? She’ll take her vulva to your Volvo. All things considered, it’s unlikely to catch on at the local Shell.

There is no cinematic equivalent to the literary Bad Sex in Fiction Award but perhaps The Counselor could be the catalyst for one. It’s regrettable enough that the film opens with coy pillow talk (“Where do you want me to touch you?” “Down there”) between the main protagonist (a corrupt, nameless lawyer played by Michael Fassbender) and his lover (Penélope Cruz). Even worse is the realisation that this scene is intended as an appetite whetting pre-credits sequence, complete with dramatic score. In The Spy Who Loved Me, it was a ski stunt that turned into a parachute jump. In The Counselor, it’s cunnilingus.

“You are the world you have created,” the lawyer is told when he starts bleating about his awful fate. The world of the film is one in which sex, drugs and money have filled the vacuum occupied normally by morality and compassion. Yet the ugliness of the environment doesn’t stink as much as Scott’s fawning camera, which seems to celebrate the opulence and narcissism decried by the screenplay. Not that the script is perfect. Characters speak in cryptic crossword clues. Buying a diamond ring involves a philosophy lecture: “Adornment is about enhancing the frailty of the beloved,” says the jeweller. You don’t hear that at Ernest Jones.

When someone does speak plainly (a gangster tells our hero, “There is no choosing; there is only accepting. The choosing was done a long time ago”), the words are a relief. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, not without its healthy parts (Brad Pitt is witty as a self-satisfied crook in a milk-white suit) but prey to a creeping artistic gangrene.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt may be shorter in the tooth (he’s 32 years old to McCarthy’s 80) but this former child star has also taken a notable new career path. As an actor, he is unusual in moving between material of jaunty lightness – (500) Days of Summer and the batty sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun – and masochistic intensity: his strongest work was as a janitor exploited by criminals in The Lookout and as an abused hustler in Mysterious Skin. He also earned his blockbuster spurs in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, which must be how Warner Bros came to back Don Jon, his first film as a writer and director. It’s difficult to believe a major studio would have stumped up for what is, in effect, an overextended short had it been made by anyone else.

Gordon-Levitt plays Jon, a libidinous Italian- American unable to reconcile the shortfall between real sex and the online pornography to which he is addicted. A brassy new girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson) reads him the riot act, while an unpredictable older woman (Julianne Moore) provides unsolicited tutelage.

The film’s powerful points about the commodification of desire are made in the opening minutes. After that, Don Jon has nothing to offer but learning curves. Still, Brie Larson is a model of understatement in a near-wordless performance as Jon’s sister, her bored eyes clamped to her smartphone. And next to The Counselor, with its wipe-clean, laminated images, it’s refreshing to see a movie so visually undemonstrative. A lot of care went into making this film look as undernourished as its hero’s emotional life. At least, I hope it did.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson in "Don Jon". Photograph: Getty Images

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge