David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis is a movie of ideas, or at least one idea. Sitting in the back of a stretch limousine inching through New York City traffic on his way to get a haircut, 28-year old billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson, only slightly less vampiric than usual) plays host to a number of guests, all of whom engage him on different aspects of his empire, which may or may not crumble by the time he hits the barber’s chair. Outside, the city breathes heavily, at one point erupting into a riotous protest that leaves his limo—one of many like it haunting the streets of this parallel New York—covered in spray paint and shit; inside there’s talk, lots of talk, about the profitably dangerous collusion of capital and technology. At one point a hacked street-side marquee insists that “a spectre is haunting the world... the spectre of capitalism.” Duly noted.
Cosmopolis, it can be said with dead certainty, knows what it’s about. But who does it think it’s for?
Fans of postmodern lit poster-boy Don DeLillo, author of the slim novel on which Cosmopolis is based, may have the most interest in sitting through Packer’s long limo ride of the soul. On the page, DeLillo’s terse dialogue and silly-by-way-of-serious sociopathy fit together neatly enough with the confined setting, and Cronenberg appears to have been faithful to the material. But his reverence for the book makes for a too-cute cover version, executed with every bit of the care he should have given to considering it in the first place. The cramped close-ups and barbed-wire banter are novel for the first few one-on-one encounters, during which we pick up on little more than Packer’s slick disconnect. The prolonged effect, though, is stagy and wooden, like an insufficiently adapted play. With each of the dozen-plus chitchats in and around the limo—Packer occasionally ventures out of the backseat to impose upon his recent and unloving bride (Sarah Gadon) at area diners—Cosmopolis lurches slightly toward nothing in particular.
The mixed blessing of such an episodic film is that the quality and tone of the scenes do shift, so there are parts that bear recommendation. Juliette Binoche is at her most vivacious as an art dealer who tries to dissuade Packer from making an offer on the Rothko Chapel. Kevin Durand, as Packer’s impatiently obedient head of security, puts out a cartoonish energy that fails to spread. An encounter with a self-important prankster (Mathieu Amalric) even allows for some physical comedy from Pattinson, well-cast in his airbrushed disaffection and occasionally impressive in where and how Packer’s veneer begins to crack. (Another highlight for R-Patts, and the movie besides: a limo-bound scene in which the health-obsessed Packer receives a prostate exam while debriefing a middle-class subordinate.)
And, of course, there are those big ideas. By the time Packer Capital’s Chief of Theory (Samantha Morton) joins Packer to observe the escalating protests from within his touchscreen-lined, mostly-soundproofed chariot, we’re more than ready to find out what Cosmopolis is up to, but there’s a po-mo coyness that hangs over even its most philosophically direct moments. We want badly to draw a conclusion, to get a read on the situation, but Cronenberg doesn’t seem to think DeLillo would approve, so we’re left with nearly two hours of stray ideas—on money, on love, on society’s doom and its sad attempts to slow it down—that don’t add up to any useful sum.
The same can be said of Cosmopolis as a narrative: What counts for story moves as slowly as Packer’s gridlocked limousine, and by the time Cronenberg accidentally introduces emotional detail and dramatic tension, the audience may be too bored to care. A surprise execution, for instance, comes across as a morbid non-sequitur, and there’s no reason to respond beyond the same light curiosity Cosmopolis gladly settles for everywhere else. And when Packer emerges finally into the night to face down a supposed threat, two men with loaded guns and supposed reason to fire them face off in a ruined apartment building... then sit down and talk for another 15 minutes. What else would they do?
The film is being marketed as the first film about our new century, and DeLillo has written the sort of book that will only build in relevance among those who recognize what this century will mean to the poor, the rich, and the mega-rich. In bringing it to the screen, David Cronenberg has miscalculated and disappointed. In recent years he has established himself as a master filmmaker as opposed to just a body-horror iconoclast; Cosmopolis now complements his other most recent screenplay credit, for 1999’s eXistenZ, by bookending that period with his two dumbest films.