Whatever David Cronenberg thought he was doing while making Cosmopolis, he could never have imagined the most relevent cultural nerve it would hit: the film has become the inadvertent cause of Robert Pattinson’s first post-KStew publicity tour. (If you missed Pattinson’s appearance with Jon Stewart, eating Ben & Jerry’s as breakup comfort food, watch it here. It’s a classic of obliquely addressing an issue without really saying anything.) In itself, Cosmopolis is smart and stylized – which doesn’t innoculate this story of a sad young Wall St. billionaire against lethal familiarity and dullness.
For once, Pattinson’s stiffness works in his favor as Eric Packer, an affectless young billionaire looking for meaning as his self-made financial empire crumbles in a single day. It’s not Pattinson’s fault that Cronenberg’s script, from a 2003 novel by Don DeLillo, has dialogue so detached from reality that it sounds like faux David Mamet, and a theme that has become tame after the post-2008 financial meltdown.
Packer has his limo cruise New York City – often it's Toronto, doing a bad job of masquerading as New York – on an ostensible mission is to get a haircut, even though his security people warn him that the President is in town creating gridlock and security concerns. People in Packer’s life traipse through the film, most of them dropping by his limo as if it were a traveling apartment. It’s as big as some Manhattan studios; see how unsubtle the observations about the economy and injustice are?
The glamorous blonde wife (Sarah Gadon) he hardly knows actually gets Packer to set foot outside his car; she’s about to leave him anyway. Juliette Binoche drops by the limo, as an art dealer who has sex with Eric and as post-tryst conversation tries to explain that a Rothko chapel he wants is not for sale. Samantha Morton has the worst role and most pedantic dialogue; the fact that she plays a kind of in-house philosopher is not much of an excuse.
Pattinson give it his tightly-wound best even when saddled with lines like “The urge to destroy is a creative urge,” even when he has to endure an inordinately long prostate exam in the limo. Pattinson and Cronenberg have talked about the film’s humor, and the absurdity of that daily medical exam comes closest, but mostly they seem to have left any humor on the page.
By the time Packer arrives at the seedy, crumbling apartment of a would-be assassin – Paul Giamatti, who temporarily enlivens the film - we’re likely to be as restless as if we’ve been cooped up in a limo too.
I love many Cronenberg films, but writing dialogue has never been his strength. Visceral, paranoid confrontations shape A History of Violence and Eastern Promises (he wrote neither of them) and the psychological dueling defines A Dangerous Method (from Christopher Hampton’s screenplay). In Cosmopolis, the mannered conversation has to work because there’s nothing else, and the idea that Packer is losing his money while searching for his soul sounds a lot weightier than it turns out to be. The floating, gliding inertia of the film may well reflect the character’s state of mind, but it also proves that being serious and thoughtful aren’t the same as making a film seem alive. Cosmopolis is airless, and not in a way that reflects its subject well.