Directed by David Cronenberg
Screenplay by David Cronenberg
Robert Pattinson, Paul Giamatti, Samantha Morton, Sarah Gadon, Mathieu Amalric, Juliette Binoche
How long is Cosmopolis? 108 minutes.
What is Cosmopolis rated? R for some strong sexual content including graphic nudity, violence and language.
Lead Robert Pattinson Hinders
Cronenberg’s Could-Have-Been Remarkable Film
A 28-year-old multi-billionaire (Eric Packer played by Robert Pattinson) takes his stretch limousine across New York City to get a haircut. That’s the plot of David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, which is based on Don DeLillo’s 2003 book of the same name and story. During his trip crosstown, Packer must sit in hours of traffic due to the President’s visit, massive protests against capitalism, a celebrity’s funeral, flooding, and other happenstances. Yet despite all the potential for calamity, this movie is primarily focused on philosophy- what’s left for the man who has everything?
A prodigy who is no longer the youngest guy in the room, Packer is numb with life and painfully bored. Rich enough to install two elevators in his apartment- one at a quarter speed with special music because it helps center him, he has daily medical check-ups and purposely isolates himself from the outside world. The President of the United States is barely a blip on his radar. Protestors spray painting and rocking his limousine mean nothing to him. He has an “old money” wife whom he barely knows. He has sex regularly, but he’s more interested in getting tazed by one of his partners. Death threats against his life barely raise his pulse. He has a stretch limousine that doubles as an impersonal mobile office with multiple touch-screens running endless streams of numbers from various markets. On the day of Cosmopolis, he purposely sets out to lose hundreds of millions of dollars by betting against the Yuan because where else can he go other than self-destruction?
As writer and director, Cronenberg is in his wheelhouse. The ability of technology to keep money moving 24/7 and analyze things at sub-microseconds takes the world away from people and gives the economy a life of its own, one beyond human understanding. The A Dangerous Mind and Spider filmmaker does an excellent job of showing Packer’s isolation. Despite New York City streets being filled by angry, destructive protestors looking to attack the rich, and what we see from the windows seems like apocalyptic chaos, he keeps the film centered in Packer’s small field of vision. The scenes in the stretch limousine are such a terrific blend of high-tech claustrophobia that by leaving it every once in a while, we unfortunately lose what could have been a powerful sense of suffocation had we escaped from that setting less.
Cosmopolis had the potential to be a very strong, poignant movie, especially considering today’s financial situation and the Occupy protests. The overwhelming feeling of impotency from both Packer and the anarchist protestors- they might throw rats in a restaurant, hassle cars, or cream someone with a pie, but you never get the sense that they have any real impact or control. The dominance and omnipotence of technology and globalization. The short shelf lives of even the best individuals. The apathy towards one’s surroundings. The vibe that the world is on the verge of collapse but being desensitized towards it all. These are all valuable and well-presented elements of the movie. And even though the film rarely goes into depth on the theories it poses, it doesn’t need to, and it wisely decides to broach ideas and leave them out there rather than present treatises. If anyone could make a movie like this work, it would probably be Cronenberg. But Cosmopolis makes one serious misstep that nearly drags the entire thing down. And it’s Robert Pattinson.
Despite seeing him in several roles, I never had any real thoughts on Pattinson as an actor. Never considered him terrible (there’s only so much you can do with Twilight if you’re not Michael Sheen), never considered him good. Although he definitely tries and shows some range, he is simply not up to the task of being a Cronenberg lead, especially in a “weird” Cronenberg film.
The more offbeat Cronenberg films are able to get away with narrative oddities, underexplored theories, and loose ends because they’re quasi-surrealistic experiences of concepts and ideas. You get the emotional and mental benefits of his films because he allows you to tap into them on a visceral level, like a dream. But the key is having a lead capable of taking you on the journey into the darker, indefinable parts of humanity. James Woods in Videodrome, Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, and James Spader in Crash, to name only a few examples, give some of the best performances of their careers as they become our vessel into Cronenberg’s universes. They give very internalized and nuanced performances as they adopt their new realities. The character of Eric Packer would have made for a great addition to this remarkable crew, but Pattinson is too surface, and he lacks the broody, intellectual intensity necessary for such a role.
While Eric is supposed to be cold, there are ways to make such a cypher interesting. The first example that comes to mind is Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Also dealing with the type of materialistic ennui as the protagonist of Cosmopolis, Bateman commands the screen as he goes through his existential crisis due to in great part to Bale’s superb work. Bateman might be dead inside, but even in his quieter moments, Bale gives him a compelling inner life that makes the character so memorable. Pattinson lacks the presence and complexity necessary to pull this off and transport us into Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis.
To be fair, like I said above, Pattinson does try. He gives occasional character tics, like slight looks of joy when he sees extreme violence and a sense of glee as he’s about to face a potential assassin, but this was a character demanding more than blips of personality. The inability to enter Packer’s mind and soul prevents us from accepting the world of Cosmopolis, and because we cannot become part of him, the movie, unfortunately, fails to fully connect.