Most of David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis is a word-for-word realization of Don DeLillo’s chillingly divisive 2003 novel, and if you’ve read the book, which I have, it can take a while to adapt to that sort of an approach on Cronenberg’s part. Cosmopolis is a story of relentless, perplexing verbiage, and the pacing of that philosophic bickering, to my mind, feels slightly more suited to DeLillo’s medium than Cronenberg’s — especially when the language is as unusual as it is here. There are times when phrases that play like lightning-quick theorizing on the page come off as stilted inertia on the screen.
But that, of course, is what Cronenberg intended — this isn’t his first screenwriting credit since 1999′s eXistenZ for nothing. And it’s rather interesting that the Canadian auteur chose to end his script-free streak for something so jarringly faithful to material that already exists. If the specifics of his copy-and-paste job weren’t so important to him, he could’ve simply got DeLillo or someone else to do the easy work themselves.
What I’m trying to get across here is the fact that there is plenty to admire in the focus of the film’s vision. Cronenberg crafts this thing with a surgeon’s precision, and never once does it feel like any of his camera movements or mise-en-scène technicalities aren’t the exact prescription he needed or wanted. Watching the film, and witnessing its exactitude, it’s hard not to picture Cronenberg himself, tweaking a tiny little hair on Robert Pattinson’s head, or adding one more tiny bead of sweat to Emily Hampshire’s forehead. That’s how carefully staged the film is.
And yet, there’s still something unsatisfying about the inflexible artifice, and while it’s acceptable on one level to claim that the impassion is “the point,” I’m not sure that covers up the film’s lack of progression from an ideological standpoint. From the opening scenes, which depict 28-year-old billionaire Eric Packer (Pattinson) conversing, opaquely, with his cohort of employees in the back of his spaceship-flavored limousine, Cronenberg instills a promising sense of isolation and meaninglessness within this capitalist minefield. But I question, at least at first glance, the film’s ability to build on those ideas across its timeline.
Narratively, it’s a deadpan hoot, with Pattinson’s icy financier — protected by his go-to bodyguard, Torval (Kevin Durand) — undressing women left and right on his way across Manhattan to his longtime barbershop. (His hair looked pretty good to me, but what do I know?) The president’s in town, a heavily attended funeral is marching through the streets, and a smoldering capitalism-will-be-the-death-of-us riot has broken out across town — add all those things up, and you’ve got a pretty long car ride, and more time for conversation than Packer would perhaps have on a normal day.
Most of these exchanges are one-scene gigs, with people like Jay Baruchel, Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, and the aforementioned Hampshire climbing into Packer’s high-tech limo and then leaving a few minutes later. There is a lot of humor here, as Cronenberg proves adept at translating DeLillo’s situational comedy into cinematic terms. (The best bit involves Packer coming on to Hampshire’s finance expert while receiving a prostate exam.) I don’t think, however, that Cronenberg’s insistence on the novel’s talkiness is as consistently effective on dramatic terms — often, the rhetoric is so foreign that all the words blend together into a fleeting void. (Had I not read the book, I fear the experience would’ve been even more difficult.)
The second half fares better, with Packer’s amped-up nihilism leading him out of his compressed vehicle and directly into the city’s deterioration — a development that thankfully allows Cronenberg to flex his muscles in other locations. Packer comes across his wife, a poet from a wealthy family (Sarah Gadon), on several occasions, and always seems to be dragging her to diners and restaurants, where they discuss their non-existent sex-life over pancakes and sushi. Cleverly, these get-togethers tend to be inserted just after Packer has had sex with one of his many willing acquaintances.
And then there’s the showdown, between Packer and a disgruntled hermit played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti. This extended scene, set in Giamatti’s filthy dump of an apartment, goes a long way towards defining the film’s immediate impact. It’s overflowing with cognitive and emotional fervor, and the movements of the performers are modulated with stirringly brittle attention. But Cosmopolis, through its intrusive artifice, sets itself up as a film of ideas, and once it’s over, there’s a pestering sensation that we haven’t reached an ideological milestone that wasn’t already covered in the shot of Packer sitting alone in his limousine, surrounded by fluorescent lights and eerie silence.
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