Rob Pattinson in David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis."
Rob Pattinson in David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis."

"Life is too contemporary," Didi Fancher (Juliette Binoche) tells Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) after they've just had sex in the back of his limousine.

That seems to be the global concern in "Cosmopolis," a headlong plunge into a dystopian urban milieu of greed, corruption, technology, nihilism, you name it. The film's network of characters--small but pivotal roles played by such seasoned actors as Binoche, Paul Giamatti, Mathieu Amalric, Samantha Morton and Jay Baruchel--can't escape their moment, when even the word "computer" is archaic and the world is poised to bottom out.

Attractive, dissolute and too rich for his own good, Eric needs a haircut. That's what he tells his driver in the first scene of the film. Holding an indiscriminate position of power managing international currencies, Eric lives his life in a decked-out stretch limo replete with alcohol and women who he tosses like crumpled receipts.

It's a problem that Eric wants his haircut on the same day the United States president has arrived in Manhattan, and the same day a celebrity funeral is being held. While seated in the back of his limo as the world roars around him, Eric makes his way across town to a barbershop, all the while encountering an eccentric cast of characters, all of whom seem to blow a fuse in his presence. From his cork-lined, soundproofed vehicle, Eric watches as wild anarchists tout the words of Karl Marx ("a specter is haunting the world") and fling sewer rats at citizens.

Lately Canadian director David Cronenberg is tending toward talkier films, heavy on dialogue and discourse. "Cosmopolis," like "A Dangerous Method" (2011), imagines pseudo-intellectual characters prattling on about The Human Condition. But unlike "Method," which reduced its characters to pint-sized archetypes of psychoanalysis, "Cosmopolis" digs deep. The film is arranged episodically, as characters appear briefly and are unlikely to show again—although Giamatti's character, Eric's madcap employee, circulates with menace along the film's fringes.

Cronenberg, long pegged for his artful dwellings on the human body and its (per)mutations, has written his first screenplay since "eXistenZ" (1999). While the material is based on literary titan Don DeLillo's 2003 novel of the same name, Cronenberg's penmanship is clear, as lines bounce off one another like electrically-charged molecules, with pregnant pauses that situate the banter in a realm outside reality. The film bristles and crackles with ideas and insight, however half-baked or preposterous, about the world at large.

This talkfest's fizzy prose matches the cold anatomy of the mise-en-scene. Heady verbal jousting and dramaturgy aside, "Cosmopolis," like any Cronenberg film, is a visual experience. Outside the confines of Eric's uber-glam limousine is a world of unfeeling chaos, where danger looms in close proximity. Though we never quite understand what it is exactly that Eric does, the insistent reminder that everyone is out to get him assures us that he is Important, with little to do.