I’m reluctant to say I don’t understand “Cosmopolis” because that would be too easy. After all it’s a David Cronenberg work, based on a Don DeLillo novel: the willfully unconventional filmmaker has more than a few odd pictures in his canon, so his tag team with the already distant DeLillo should spell out a strange kind of success. But I like to think I’ve seen my fair share of quirky films, many of which border on the ostentatious art vomit that is usually relegated to the avant-garde. So my dislike (or perhaps distaste) for Cronenberg’s latest film must be rooted in something other than ignorance.
Robert Pattinson stars as the young billionaire Eric Packer, a cold, soulless businessman disturbingly at home in his outfitted stretch limo, which serves as his office while ferrying him about clogged Manhattan streets to his preferred barber. Along the journey he has sex with multiple women not named Mrs. Packer, loses billions on currency speculation, and gets a prostate exam. Through it all he slowly self-destructs, as his limo wanders aimlessly through a cityscape that becomes increasingly dark, increasingly subdued, increasingly people-less.
From the outset, “Cosmopolis” is a delightful dissection of the 1%, and so Eric Packer’s undemonstrative air feels appropriate. But Cronenberg has never been known for his subtlety, stretching back to his body horror days in the ’70s and ’80s. In making Packer utterly and irredeemably inhuman, Cronenberg has done it again, so to speak. Everything is over the top, starting with Pattinson’s portrayal of a character thoroughly blasé and unimpressive, almost like how Neo from “The Matrix” would have been if anyone other than that oddball Keanu Reeves had played him. Then we encounter Packer’s colleagues and enemies, all of whom are as intellectually bombastic as our apathetic billionaire.
If anything, it’s hilarious how poorly conceived everything turns out to be. What I mean is that with such a hot-button social issue at play (however peripherally) there has to be more drama and tension than the sparse offerings we’re given. Even the truly dramatic parts (near the end as Packer confronts his would-be assassin) are bogged down by enough highbrow discourse to fill a junior-level Socratic seminar. And if there’s anything we’ve learned about such talk-heavy films it’s that they simply do not work (most of the time).
But the Canadian-born filmmaker would have us see things differently. His perceived creation is not a work of cinema but a surgery table, peeling away at each layer of the infinitely rich to expose a marginal class as empty as their valueless pieces of paper, of which Packer has billions. Still, I’m not convinced it quite works. I’m all for intellectualism in my movies, but only if the heart of the drama remains intact.
So maybe, as I’m beginning to see it, “Cosmopolis” is actually a stunning critique of itself: a rough shell of a movie, more concept than creation, crafted from the outside as a normal film on the wealthiest and most depraved but littered within by too many useless tools (read here: unnecessary stylistic elements, camera angles and, let me repeat, awfully pretentious dialogue). But all of the neat tricks and fancy wrappings don’t hide the fact that at its core, Cronenberg’s latest is terribly hollow, much like the very limousine at the center of it all.
The sad thing is the film won’t even enjoy whatever box-office success could be drawn from casting Robert Pattinson, the secret “Twilight” self-hater. Once again, his film-dominating protagonist dooms his performance: he’s not loathsome, nor despicable, nor evil. He’s nothing at all. And that’s the real problem.