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.

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

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.