A crucial moment in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis involves Robert Pattinson's dead-eyed, 28-year-old billionaire casually bending over in the backseat of his cavernous stretch limousine and submitting to a rectal exam. It happens in the middle of a conversation with a business associate, but given that this is a movie sludged with dialogue so thick and unwieldy neither sex nor guns can stop it, the flow—lets make that torrent—of words is hardly abated by a physician fiddling around inside one of the characters.
Eventually, the doctor announces that Pattinson's prostate is asymmetrical. This worries him greatly, though you wouldn't know it from his unflinchingly blank expression. The only indication that he's bothered by this medical irregularity is that he brings it up to almost everyone else he encounters during the rest of the long, devastating day depicted in the film—including the disgruntled former employee (Paul Giamatti) who wants to kill him.
"The importance of the lopsided, the thing that's skewed a little. You were looking for balance, beautiful balance, equal parts, equal sides," Giamatti says.
The folly of order—an obsession that unites capitalists and fascists—is the central theme of Cosmopolis, Cronenberg's patience-testing adaptation of Don DeLillo's polarizing 2003 novel. He's called the movie a "hardcore art film," but the word "hardcore" suggests something throttling, bludgeoning. Instead, Cosmopolis is simply numbing. Ostensibly, the movie is about an obscenely rich man traveling across near-future Manhattan to get a haircut. In terms of a plot synopsis, that's pretty much it. Plenty of things happen around the film—the manager of the International Monetary Fund has his eyes stabbed out on live television; a beloved rapper gets a funeral procession that ties up the streets of New York; anarchists launch a riot in Times Square—but in the movie itself, that stuff is only talked about, or watched on TV or through a car window.
That, of course, is partially the point. Pattinson's Eric Packer, who made his fortune speculating on financial markets, lives a hermetically sealed existence. It's clear why Cronenberg would cast Pattinson: he's spent five years playing a sallow-faced vampire. This is basically the same role, only more soulless. Packer's state-of-the-art limo, a terrestrial Death Star inside which three-fourths of the movie takes place, is designed to drown out street noise. It allows him to pass through a raging mob of 99 percenters and observe protestors immolating themselves as if he were viewing cows on a country highway.
The screenplay is equally detached. Cronenberg makes no attempt to untangle DeLillo's dense thickets of language. Characters talk at each other in streams of prose that fly by so fast the emptiness of what they're saying is almost imperceptible. Again, the pretension is sort of the point. This is a movie about people so isolated by wealth they only know how to communicate in jargon and pseudo-profound babble: "A person rises on a word and falls on a syllable." "Talent is more erotic when it's wasted." "The urge to destroy is a creative thought." What the hell does any of that mean? It sounds good in the moment, but gradually develops into an alienating white noise.
And yet, like all Cronenberg films, Cosmopolis is hard to dismiss outright. It's somehow boring and transfixing at the same time, like a melting glacier. Its biggest issue is timing. DeLillo's book has benefited from prescience. It was written to comment on the dot-com bust and ended up predicting the Occupy movement and the financial calamity of the late decade. By adapting the novel now, Cronenberg is meditating on themes that have already been mulled to death this summer—in some ways more efficiently—in populist blockbusters from The Dark Knight Rises to Step Up Revolution. The latter had laser hats, which a âhardcore art filmâ canât possibly compete with.
Critic's Grade: C+
SEE IT: Cosmopolis is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.