Written & Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Paul Giamatti, and Sarah Gordon
MPAA: R – For Some Strong Sexual Content Including Graphic Nudity, Violence, and Language]
I can’t recommend David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis to that many people. That isn’t to say that it’s bad. It’s not “great” by any means, but it’s far from bad. In fact, it’s an incredibly provocative effort from Cronenberg, the director of classics like The Fly and Videodrome, and it’s certainly an improvement over his last dud, A Dangerous Method. And while my initial viewing experience was very mixed, it’s grown on me the more and more I’ve thought of it. The problem, of course, is that the sort of audience that would appreciate this film is very, very small, thus making it very hard to review.
The film is based on a Don Delillo novel of the same name, which I haven’t read, but I have heard that this is a very close adaptation of the novel, to the point that it could alienate many viewers unfamiliar with the source material. It certainly alienated me numerous times, but not enough to make me appreciate it less.
Cosmopolis follows a single day in the life of Eric Parker (Robert Pattinson), a 28-year-old billionaire, who decides to ride across Manhattan just for a haircut. That’s the simplified version of the plot, pretty much. Doesn’t sound like much, huh? More than half of the film takes place within his high-tech limo, and along the way there, he’s interrupted by traffic from all sorts of different sources such as a Presidential visit, an anti-capitalist protest, and the funeral of a famous musician. During traffic, he has different conversations with his many advisors, employees, friends, lovers, and other random people about the nature of wealth. And all along the way, he rapidly starts to lose more and more of his wealth as the car ride goes on.
Still doesn’t sound like much? How about the addition of David Cronenberg’s precise direction, which transforms this simple journey from point A to point B into a surreal descent into a one-percenter’s personal nightmare? And what about when you add in the great performances from Robert Pattinson, Paul Giamatti, Juliette Binoche, and others in a large, admirable cast? Now we’re talking.
It’s best to think of Cosmopolis as a film that doesn’t take place in the real world. Everything about Cosmopolis is just slightly bent towards the deep-end, just enough to make you feel uneasy. Not a whole lot, but more in a Lynchian sense where it feels almost like some sinister force is trying to trick you into believing this is all real while settling in on a creepy uncanny-valley of surrealism. The characters aren’t so much real people as they are personifications of abstract concepts and ideas that range from political, to philosophical, to socioeconomic. Shorter version: It takes place in the personal hell of its protagonist.
Cronenberg’s direction could be seen as a bit too cold for people to really connect with. He makes sure that every character speaks in almost robotic tones, talking about dense, abstract concepts such as free-market consumerism or other things that sound almost made up. Sometimes, it’s as if each character is talking in their own secret code. Plus, this is the kind of dialogue-driven movie in which the dialogue fully takes center-stage. There aren’t many scenes in which music is accompanied with the talking, the characters speak emotionlessly, and what with much of the movie taking place in confined spaces, there isn’t a whole lot of variety in the visuals or the camera movement. Many scenes are literally just two different angles simply observing a conversation about these abstract concepts of finance & wealth and how they are connected with human nature.
Therefore, I completely understand why many people would outright hate this movie, or at least be bored to tears by it. In fact, there were many moments in the film where my interest started to wane a bit. However, I do think that that very coldness is the whole point of Cosmopolis. Each of these characters have been imbued with such wealth that they’ve lost their own souls and have literally ceased to be human in this film’s universe.
Because of this, there was never a moment where the movie lost me on a thematic level, even though the pacing was inconsistent. It’s a subtly eerie film, save for three or four very overblown moments involving rats, pastry assassins (really), and a character pointing a gun at his own hand. I’ll admit that I was expecting the film to be much crazier, considering Cronenberg’s pedigree and the fact that the trailer made it look like his older gore-centric films like Videodrome and eXistenZ. But even though it’s more talky then I thought, it still has its moments of Cronenbergian weirdness.
Of course, I also need to point out that the dialogue is also the main problem with the film. I normally don’t mind a dialogue driven movie, so long as the dialogue is interesting. Here, the dialogue is certainly “intelligent”–there’s no denying that–but that doesn’t make it entertaining. I get the reason why the characters talk in such emotionless tones, I covered that reason already. Yet that doesn’t make the movie any more watchable. Not only is the speaking style robotic, the dialogue is so dense and impenetrable that for those who either a.) aren’t already well-versed in Wall Street-speak or b.) are uninitiated to the original source material, a lot of the scenes will come across as sheer nonsense.
Seeing that I belonged in both of those categories, a lot of the film just didn’t work for me. This is one of those movies that’s easier to admire than to actually enjoy or embrace viewing. All the pieces are there: Smart script, good actors, assured direction, creepy vibe, strong source material, interesting thematic substance. The only problem is that it doesn’t find a way to make it entirely watchable. There are individual scenes that are pretty much at the level of greatness, but they’re few and far between lots of scenes of, as Ebert perfectly put it, “Enigmatic people who speak in morose epigrams about vague universal principles they show no sign of understanding.”
The one thing that made the long-stretches of dialogue watchable enough to make it to the end was the performances. Robert Pattinson gives the best performance of his career. That may not sound like much considering, well, his career, but it is quite good. Other actors fare well in brief bits, such as Juliette Binoche as an assistant and Mathieu Amalric as a “pastry assassin” (again: really), but the best out of all of them is Paul Giamatti, who is chilling and intense in the one scene he is in at the film’s finale. His exchange with Pattinson is one of the most unnerving and intense one-to-one conversations I’ve seen in recent memory.
However, as good as the performances generally are there’s a problem that many of the actors exhibit: It’s clear they have no idea what the hell they’re talking about. Don’t get me wrong, Robert Pattinson is quite good. He’s chillingly mechanical (in a good way) and finds good use of his suaveness this time around in comparison to the insufferable Twilight franchise, but it’s still pretty apparent that he’s completely lost when he discusses concepts of capitalism and wealth in detail. The dialogue itself already feels like it was ripped out of a college-level philosophy textbook, but try as Pattinson does, he only partially succeeds at getting us invested in what he’s saying.
The main reason to see the movie, of course, is David Cronenberg. He has such control over this film that it’s really hard to despise. Even though the pacing is certainly inconsistent in how it careens from philosophical debates to scenes of graphic sex, hardcore violence, and surreal visuals, Cronenberg’s direction always remains assured. It’s not like it’s paced like that by mistake. He makes sure to hold each scene long enough while saving the weird stuff for just the right moment for a jolt of energy. The only reason that the pacing is problematic is script issues rather than actual pacing issues.
All in all, I’m not sure whether I go down as positive or just indifferent on the film. There’s enough here to admire and enjoy from the style to the performances, but it’s bogged down by the overly abstract dialogue and inconsistent pacing. Plus, I can’t imagine a single mainstream viewer not totally lost watching this movie at all. If you’re a fan of David Cronenberg, the Don DeLillo novel, or anything in the experimental spectrum of moviegoing, go see this. But if you’re not a fan of either of those things, and you think you’ll also have a problem understanding the dense dialogue like I did, then avoid it at all costs.
Final Verdict: Cosmopolis is compelling, chilling, and intelligent. It’s also frustratingly boring at certain moments, too abstract and dense in its dialogue, and incredibly cold, making it resistant to really connecting with the audience. That may be the point, and it’s a point I admire, but that doesn’t make it any less problematic. Thankfully, Cronenberg’s fantastic direction and the talented cast make up for its pacing and dialogue issues enough to lean me towards the positive side, though I have a feeling that it won’t be enough for most other viewers.