Review: Cosmopolis

R-Pattz ponders existence and sh*t

The heads exploding in Scanners. The compound-fracture forearm splintering in The Fly. The guy with his jaw blown off, the rough sex on the stairs in a History of Violence. When I think David Cronenberg, I think of the visceral – lurid, memorable scenes of glorified sex and gore. As you might expect of a guy who once filmed James Spader having sex with a vulva-like scar on Rosanna Arquette’s leg (Crash, 1996), Cronenberg is fascinated by the human body, and he excels at shooting it. Dialog? Not so much. Remember the parts of History of Violence without the sex or the violence that felt like a weird, stilted after-school special? The last thing you want to see him do is make a movie that’s ninety-five percent people standing around and talking, which is what Cosmopolis is. There are isolated moments of genius, but they’re like Easter Island isolated. Yeah, geography, bitch, what.

Based on the Don DeLillo novel of the same name, Cosmopolis is a shaggy dog story centering around Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), a billionaire asset manager on a trip across Manhattan in his limo to get a haircut on the same day that the president comes to town and sparks an anti-capitalist riot by rat-toting anarchists. There are a couple short, action-ish sequences that were nice (the rat-toting anarchists, mainly), but for the most part, it’s a game of musical chairs, with Robert Pattinson sitting in different places talking to different people, about, like, the nature of existence and stuff. “Dude, like what does it all mean or whatever?”

As soon as Robert Pattinson opened his mouth I knew I was in for a long movie. Part of the problem is the source material. I haven’t read Cosmopolis, but I’m otherwise familiar with Don DeLillo, and one DeLillo hallmark is dialog that’s stylized to the point that it’s almost Shakespearean, in that exists unto itself moreso than the physical world. His characters converse in existential, hyper-verbose, hyper-articulate, disconnected circle-speak – think Beckett, or Joseph Heller, or Flannery O’Connor. His dialog never seems intended to convey the way real people actually speak, it’s more a tool to present elaborately braided paradox. That’s not a knock on it, it’s smart, but polarizing, overwrought mostly in a good way. But that DeLillo’s scenes are built in your mind and often don’t seem to involve recognizable people presents some obvious problems for actors trying to present this believably, burdened as they are by their basic real peoplehood. I don’t know if DeLillo’s fetishized doubletalk ever works in a visual medium like film, but I can tell you that Robert Pattinson sure as hell isn’t up to it, at least not without better direction than this. I don’t doubt for a second that it’s hard to play a detached character, but R-Patts (who I haven’t minded in other stuff) never gets past high school theater club “hard boiled.” Squint, purse lips, furrow brow, squint some more, can you squint harder? Try anyway, repeat.

Cronenberg doesn’t try very hard to humanize anyone, and while a couple solid supporting turns (Paul Giamatti, Sarah Gadon) manage to overcome the general lack of direction or characters connecting or appearing to actually listen to each other in any meaningful way, the two with the most screen time, Pattinson and Kevin Durand, are both pretty awful. Pattinson plays a WASP-y Manhattan billionaire and Durand his head of security, and yet they both seem to have adopted an accent like fawken pizza pie Tony my knucklehead fawken cousin from da neighbahood always touchin his bawlls ovah heah. OH! Mamma mia make a pepperoni stickball an alla dat, ya fage.

The stageyness does seem intended, with obvious green screens and deliberately theatrical action, perhaps as a way of saying “Get it? Life is just a play!” But that doesn’t make the dull parts any less dull.

There are a couple decent scenes and a few solid lines (“Where do cab drivers come from?” “They come from horror and despair.” “Yes, exactly. One learns about the countries where unrest is occurring by riding the taxis here.”).  It’s hard to deny DeLillo’s essential brilliance, but the problem is that watching this is just a chore, like Robert Pattinson trying to help you with your calculus homework. The occasional gems of dialog – which is usually delivered flatly and without objective by Pattinson – flounders in a soup of mushroom-addled over-examination. Some things benefit from close examination. Asking things like “What is a haircut, really, anyway?” and “Why are they called airports?” and “What does it mean to ‘spend money?'” just made me want to jam a pen in my eye. At a certain point, I don’t care how quippy your answer is because the question is just too stupid.

Look, I have nothing against existentialism, or hammering on the essential meaninglessness of existence, but Hesher, Cosmic Bandidos, Lewis Carroll – many have proved that there can be absurdist glee in meaninglessness, absurdism used as a plaything. Cosmopolis is occasionally clever, but mostly just bludgeons you with gloomy, oppressive disconnectedness. There’s precious little of DeLillo’s flair for the silly (a voice-activated gun that arms itself when you say “Nancy Babich”) and far too much of his depressive wallowing.

More leg f*cking, please.