Film Review: Cosmopolis by David Cronenberg
I approached Cosmopolis with trepidation. Festival reviews were either ecstatic or scathing, with nothing in the middle. Though I’ve been a regular Cronenberg viewer since his eerie adaptation of Stephen King’s Dead Zone, the man does have the occasional misfire. Though 2011’s A Dangerous Method contained some marvelous performances, the film never seemed to gel thematically. And I’d happily erase Dead Ringers (1988) permanently from my memory. Given the polarized critical reception and my lack of familiarity with the source novel by Don DeLillo, I honestly didn’t know what to expect.
The Twilight Saga’s Robert Pattinson plays Eric Packer, an aging wunderkind commodities trader, who, at twenty-eight, has already outlived his own legend. Most of the film’s scenes take place inside a white stretch limousine as Packer travels across Manhattan against heavy traffic, bent on getting a haircut in his old neighborhood. While NYC street life scrolls past the windows with the remoteness of images beamed from the Mars rover, Packer’s multi-billion dollar empire implodes due to his inability to predict the behavior of the Chinese Yuan.
As the day progresses, Packer engages in a series of increasingly bizarre existentialist dialogs with various people whose roles in his life or business are not always readily apparent. Is the Juliette Binoche character his mistress, his art dealer, or both? Is the mop-haired college grad his business partner? Computer guru? Understudy? It’s unclear. Continuously pushed off course by vague threats relayed via his head of security (Kevin Durand), Packer slowly makes his way through a New York–and an existence–he does not really inhabit.
Though there are two sex scenes in the film, both of which feature a passive Pattinson beneath a female partner, neither carries the erotic charge of what is–for me at least–the film’s weirdest moment. Summoned from a jog in Central Park on her day off, personal assistant Jane Melman (Emily Hampshire) enters the limo to find Packer in the middle of his daily medical exam. Dripping sweat and oozing frustration, Melman looks on as Packer doffs his shirt for an EKG, and the rest of his clothes for a prostate exam, complete with rubber glove and lube. As the scene approaches its climax, Pattinson looms naked over the seated Hampshire, his face displaying an intensity of expression that has been absent up to now, while finch-inducing Foley effects squelch off camera. As Melman hunches her shoulders and wrings the neck of a water bottle wedged between her thighs, Packer calls her “sloppy, smelly, and wet,” mocks her “puritanical jogging” and suggests that she was “made to be tied to a bed.” When Melman finally looks up, it’s to ask “why haven’t we talked like this before?” Horribly, this is as close to real passion as anyone in the film gets.
In another scene, Packer discovers that the funeral procession he has been dodging all day is for the rap star Brutha Fez (voiced and played by the surprisingly mellow K’Naan), a friend and inspiration whose music Packer has piped into his personal elevator. This unwelcome news arrives, not over Packer’s numerous screens, but in the person of Kosmo Thomas (Grouchy Boy), an enormous, tubby black dude in an oversize team jersey who could not look less like the skinny, suited Pattinson. Sparks fly when Packer assumes that Brutha Fez was shot, when in fact he died of heart failure. But the two are soon getting weepy over news footage of the street-side mourners. The scene ends with world’s most mismatched man-hug.
All this weirdness is compounded by the provocations of the Ratmen–a cadre of anti-capitalists whose protests feel more like performance art–and punctuated by restaurant meals with Elsie Shifrin (the luminous Sarah Gadon), Packer’s aloof, old money wife. What emerges, finally, is a portrait of a man who has willed himself out of existence. (Pattinson, incidentally, is perfect for this roll, in that he has reached a level of fame such that he is now more of a signifier than a human being.) In a world where money is made, not by producing goods or providing services, but via a tenuous grasp of obscure branches of psychology and mathematics, not only has wealth become an abstraction, but the wealthy themselves have become something insubstantial, something less than present, specters–as Marx would have it–haunting the world.
While viewing Cosmopolis, and immediately afterword, my primary response was a sort of amused bafflement. But over the next few days, the film stuck with me, and I began to make connections and unpick themes as certain scenes replayed in my head. I sympathize with the film’s detractors, especially DeLillo fans, who are in a better position to judge it’s success as an adaptation. (I remember my own disappointment with 1996’s Crash.) But I have to judge Cosmopolis a success. Like a difficult book, Cronenberg’s latest made me work toward understanding, rather than simply entertaining me. If modern existence is as difficult to navigate as the film suggests, that’s all to the good.