Cosmopolis Review By Adam
For better or worse — often both — Cosmopolis is a quintessential David Cronenberg film. Cosmopolis is simultaneously fascinating and impenetrable, profound and absurd, labyrinthine yet intimate. Cosmopolis contains lashings of Cronenberg’s staples: pungent sex, sharp violence and deep, intricate subtext. But it also contains something that is often missing from Cronenberg’s films: sheer pretention. Cosmopolis is film as thesis, not entertainment.
Based on Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, Cosmopolis follows 28-year old billionaire Manhattanite Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson). On a seemingly ordinary day, Packer decides that he wants to travel across town to have a haircut. This normally mundane activity is gloriously compromised by outside influences: the President is in town, the public are in the midst of a GFC-style revolution and his security expert informs him that a ‘credible threat’ is stalking him. During his commute Packer uses his customised limousine as makeshift office. Inside, he entertains a series of characters that all seem shaken by the unstable nature of Packer’s financial trades and his aloof, existentially probing nature. As Packer nears his objective, he starts to face crises personal, financial and existential.
Almost instantaneously, Cosmopolis establishes itself as a stunningly opaque film. Characters look in different directions and sprout a stagey mixture of jargon and bon mots. I imagine most viewers will take drastically different tacts within the first few minutes: either obsessively devour every exchange hoping that they will decipher hidden clues…or completely disengage and pray for the end. Unfortunately, both options are futile. I’d love to profess that every element of Cosmopolis is important, but there is a thick vein of absurdism running through this film – most of its head-spinning exchanges, once translated, amount to little more than existential navel gazing. The average cinema-goer will feel somehow intellectually inferior for not ‘getting’ Cosmopolis, while professing to have understood it in its entirety smacks of pretension. Unfortunately, this is a film truly geared for the critical set, and I don’t think that is a good thing, as there will be an unarguable discrepancy between Joe Average’s cinematic experience and the ranting of his favourite egg-headed critic.
While I normally have an automatically negative response to impenetrable films, Cosmopolis is not outwardly surreal. It has a (relatively) coherent structure and a wealth of ideas buzzing under its hood. It just gets bogged down in hyper-intellectual, grandiose monologues. The involvement of writer/director David Cronenberg is a double-edged sword. I am a huge, lifelong fan of Cronenberg’s work. From The Dead Zone to Eastern Promises, I have been in awe of his attraction and commitment to controversial, cerebral material. I’ve rarely encountered a Cronenberg film that I didn’t like, and I fear that I am giving him extra credit for Cosmopolis. I also fear that I am slipping into apologist territory for claiming to like it. Few could successfully argue that this is an entertaining film loaded with catharsis. When the events of this film were abbreviated into a trailer, it looked positively propulsive. But in eventuality, Cosmopolis frequently disappears up its own — hyper-articulate — arse.
Cosmopolis is ostensibly a one location film. While there are numerous scenes sans limo, the majority of Cosmopolis’s action takes place in Packer’s near-futuristic ‘office’. For his (perceived) offences, Cronenberg cannot be accused of making a visually dull film. Even when restricted to the confines of an automobile, Cronenberg — with the help of brilliant cinematographer Peter Suschitzky — figures out a way to make this film visually arresting. Using his trademark forced-perspective photography and wide angle lenses, Cronenberg pushes us directly into the performers’ faces. Every minute gesture and hair follicle is displayed for sharp scrutiny. The limo itself is a marvel of production design, a whirling mixture of slick leather interiors and bright, near-futuristic screens: it is symbolic of Packer’s chaotic, yet sleek mind. The production design is handled by Arvinder Grewal, who worked on American Psycho, and this film has a similarly clean, corporate aesthetic. The majority of Cosmopolis’s technical crew are frequent Cronenberg collaborators, and, as usual, their work is synergistic. From the pulsating Howard Shore score to Denise Cronenberg’s stylish costumes, this film is instantly recognisable as Cronenberg’s. While there are fleeting moments of Cronenberg’s trademark provocation — including a man having his eyes stabbed out on national television — there is a distinct lack of mind-blowing moments. We get no vaginal chest cavities (Videodrome) or exploding craniums (Scanners). It is a shame, as this film often feels poised to explode; DeLilo and Cronenberg just never pull the trigger.
Just like the source material, the acting in Cosmopolis is a mixed bag. This is truly difficult material and the supporting cast — featuring Samantha Morton, Jay Baruchel and Julliette Binoche — try to rationalise what they are saying, but not all succeed. Almost all of the actors in Cosmopolis are regulated to short, talky vignettes and they are often burdened with indecipherable technobabble doubling as dialogue. Binoche and Morton seem perplexed by what is coming out of their mouths and the effect is mildly distracting. Sarah Gadon is great as Packer’s equally aloof wife; she seems in total synch with the material and she nails the cadence of DeLilo’s dialogue. In a powerful performance, Paul Giamatti makes DeLillo’s words seem like Shakespeare. Even when he is rambling nonsense (he finds himself amused by using the word ‘mutton’ mid-monologue) Giamatti is fully committed and arresting on the screen. This is of little surprise as Giamatti has constantly been one of this generation’s strongest actors — he could make Twilight sound profound.
Speaking of which, the real surprise of Cosmopolis is how good Robert Pattinson is as Eric Packer. Featuring a half-cocked sneer at all times, Pattinson often dominates the scenes he is in. This is remarkable considering he is acting opposite serious talents and he has to sprout lines like ‘I’m a world citizen with a New York set of balls.’ Pattinson’s presence is a lose-lose situation in Cosmopolis: those slavishly devoted to ‘R-Patz’ will recoil from this film like it was week-old roadkill, and those who like Crononeberg’s work will be equally put off by the involvement of a teen heartthrob who is primarily famous for a subpar franchise and a tacky portmanteau. It’s a damn shame, as he does fine work here. If nothing else comes out of Cosmopolis it will be that, unequivocally, Pattinson can act.
Ultimately, I think Cosmopolis is the definition of a cult film. Depending on your sensibilities, this will either be wildly stimulating or the most painful two hours of your life. I, personally, quite liked it (or at least, was bemused by it) but then again, I’m one of those aforementioned egg-head critics. My recommendation of Cosmopolis is conditional in the extreme: this is indulgent and absurdist cinema, it just happens to be made by one of the world’s most fascinating filmmakers.