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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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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