There’s a lot to be excited about with Cosmopolis. For starters, it is the most Cronenbergian film the master has made since 1999′s eXistenZ. It also stars an unlikely Robert Pattinson as the lead, breaking away from his Twilight reputation as a teen fangirl idol. On these two fronts, Cosmopolis is a success. Pattinson proves that he is up to the task and Cronenberg is at the top of his game. This is arguably the most assured his direction has ever been. And yet, the end result is very frustrating.
The story follows Eric Packer (Pattinson), a young billionaire who woke up on this particular day deciding that he wants to travel across town to get his haircut. But this isn’t an ordinary day in Manhattan. The president is in town, there are violent anti-capitalist rioters parading the streets, and a funeral procession for a recently deceased rap star is blocking certain streets. On top of all this, a “credible threat” has been made on Packer’s life. As he sits on a throne in the back of his stretch limousine, he has encounters with his wife, who is also a billionaire, and an assortment of people who work for him. At the same time, his fortune dwindle as the result of destructive betting on his part. Tired of the monotony of his luxurious life and feeling a sense of freedom from his lost fortune, he begins to take risks and put himself in harm’s way.
Don DeLillo, who wrote the novel, is highly regarded for his complex writing on the nature of modern society. “Cosmopolis” was poorly received at the time of its release in 2003, but has since earned the respect of many critics for being ahead of its time. He wrote about the 1% before Occupy Wall Street was even an idea. Cronenberg chose to keep his adaptation close to the source, drafting nearly all of the dialogue from the novel. DeLillo fans might not want it any other way, but this fidelity to the source ends up hurting the film’s watchability. The script is filled with long stretches of abstract monologues about capitalism and the information age. Everything is extremely cryptic and difficult to keep a hold on. I suspect my appreciation for the dialogue could grow with subsequent viewings.
There are a lot of elements of the film that succeed. One of them is its dark sense of humor. Cosmopolis is often very funny in the strangest ways. It’s not often you come across a writer who can derive symbolism from an asymmetrical prostate. Packer’s interactions with his wife Elise (Sarah Gadon) are amusing as well. She has a creepy, almost robotic delivery to her lines and the matter-of-fact way that the couple discusses the possibility of intercourse is awkward and hilarious. Cronenberg’s direction is immaculate. It is minimal but totally effective. For a movie that takes place primarily in the backseat of a limo, he finds numerous ways to film the activities taking place. Watching protesters violently rock the vehicle and leave graffiti markings all over it from the inside is unsettling, even though the rich occupants never bat an eye.
The real highlight of Cosmopolis is seeing Pattinson prove himself. Here is a sentence I never thought I’d say: Robert Pattinson is my favorite part of a David Cronenberg film. Sacrilege, I know, but it’s true. His take on Packer isn’t quite an award-worthy performance and doesn’t require a great deal of range, but it is filled with wonderful subtleties and nuances. His emotionless expressions and cold line deliveries are a great match for the vacuous character. That might sound like an insult, but I promise it’s not. Even if his performance is not marked down as one to remember, it’s great to see that he is making smart choices in his post-Twilight career. Word is he will be starring in an upcoming Werner Herzog movie. I’m there. I can’t imagine Pattinson’s usual fan base walking into a showing of the film, but their reactions would surely be a great source of amusement. The supporting performances are filled by a wonderful cast, including Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton and Paul Giamatti giving it their all. But even their endless talents aren’t enough to make DeLillo’s words captivate on screen.
It’s difficult to explain exactly why Cosmopolis doesn’t work. It has all the ingredients of a great film: precise direction, timely subject matter, a very capable cast and a meaningful screenplay. But somehow the material fails to translate to the screen in an engaging way. It feels like Cronenberg may be trying to find an even ground between his stranger films of old and his more recent artistic endeavors, but the result satisfies neither camp. The end product feels as empty and soulless as the central characters. It’s the type of film I admire a lot more than I actually like. I still encourage the curious and open-minded to give it a shot.