Review: Cronenberg's 'Cosmopolis' is a Lot of Limo Wheel-Spinning
by Jeremy Kirk
August 24, 2012
The name David Cronenberg sends a barrage of visceral images into the mind, images of a memorable film career that injects both parts of the term "psychosexual" into each frame. He's shied from the craziness in recent years, his latest, Cosmopolis, running a different subtextual course. Based on a novel by Don DeLillo, it hits on the economy, the powers driving it, and the sheer boredom from never having to worry about the next dollar. "Boredom" is key here, because Cosmopolis, for all it's trying to say, ends up saying very little, and the limo at the forefront of film is appropriate for how much the wheels spin here. Read on!
In that limousine is Eric Packer, played by Robert Pattinson, a New York City billionaire whose one goal on this day in particular is to get across town for a haircut. The president is in town, traffic is backing up, and Eric, seemingly stuck in the car all day, continues doing business from the back seat of his state-of-the-art office on wheels. He carries out meetings with random people, his new wife and daily checkups by a physician among them. When Eric learns from his security detail that someone has threatened his life, his day begins down a course of self destruction that will likely leave Eric a ruined man by the end of the day. Any chances of a more optimistic outcome for the character never seems to be in order.
That part isn't giving too much away, as Cronenberg's foreboding atmosphere is laid on thick here. Cosmopolis, though not as viscerally exciting or a crazy as much of the director's earlier works, is excellently executed. Cronenberg does everything he can to make this limousine trip with a Manhattan billionaire as interesting as it can be. He plays up the disconnection angle, the idea that this billionaire has very little in common with the people he observes on the street and has no interest in even sharing the same street sounds with them. The limousine he rides in is not only high tech as can be with computer monitors and touch screens laid out here and there, it's absolutely soundproof, an element that adds to how unnerving it is just being in the car.
This plays out well, but Eric's disconnection from the world and people around him seems to be the extent of where DeLillo's story - Cronenberg adapted the screenplay himself - goes. There's a lot of talk about the price of the dollar and some analogies about a rat being the new form of currency. Zbigniew Herbert's poem "Report From the Besieged City" seems to have been the catalyst for DeLillo to write the novel in the first place, and the concept of the rat comes up, makes it point, then comes up time and time again for the film's 108 minutes.
That's where Cosmopolis loses its interest, when it becomes obvious that the point it's trying to get across has already been made clear. It's early in the film, and neither DeLillo nor Cronenberg appear interested in expanding on that, creating a story out of this concept that goes beyond the glazed-over looks of a wealthy businessman. The story turns violent in the back half, sometimes out of nowhere. We understand why Eric starts doing the things he does, but it ends up coming off like shock for shock's sake, nothing of the vibrancy and fullness seen in Cronenberg films as recent as 2005's A History of Violence. When events turned to the extreme in that film, you understood both the concept and the actions. With this film, we're made to believe concept is enough. It's not.
Pattinson may as well be performing in a one-man play here, an idea that could easily turn Cosmopolis to the stage. The actor does a fine job playing cold, disconnected, a look in his eye that he's checked out of the world long ago and he's waited until this day to let everyone else know about it. It's been said that Pattinson appears bored in his films, an aspect that he plays into with nearly flawless results in Cosmopolis. It may not have been a choice. There might be nothing deliberate about what he's doing here, but regardless, it works.
He's aided with commendable supporting turns by Kevin Durand, Sarah Gadon, and Julette Binoche. Samantha Morton shows up briefly and effectively as Eric's business advisor, a single scene that pretty much spells out everything else the rest of the film is trying to say. Paul Giamatti shows up late for last-minute exposition and a wrap-up that's more head-slapping than head-scratching. It's kind of a slap-then-scratch deal when it comes to the final 10-15 minutes of Cosmopolis. At that point, you're not entirely sure what's going on, and you've since stopped trying to figure it out.
Which is what makes Cosmopolis such a frustrating film. It's message is clear. What DeLillo and Cronenberg have to say about the financial situation and where it's possibly headed is as obvious as it is terrifying. The state of the dollar is something that should make a pseudo-futuristic tale of the indulgence and destruction of the ultra-rich all the more prescient. With Cosmopolis, though, the wheels continue turning, the point continues getting made, and much like the current state of the economic system, not much gets done. Hell, even the hair cut ends up being a half realized idea. Cronenberg hasn't completely lost his way here. There's still much in terms of the execution of Cosmopolis that should be applauded, but with a lack of focus on the narrative, all of the positive ends up passing by like faceless traffic.
Jeremy's Rating: 5 out of 10