Three-Martini Naked Lunch
The two prospective core audiences for this collaboration between cerebral auteur David Cronenberg and teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson will each have a pertinent question in mind before entering the cinema: Younger Pattinson fans looking for more of his tortured “Twilight” smoldering may ask themselves just how digestible this apparently adult and difficult film will be. Cronenberg watchers may be equally curious as to how the film stacks up at this particular juncture of his career. The director is currently three films into a relatively restrained mainstream phase of a recurring cycle. Last time, in the early 1990s, he brought a similarly respectable diversion to a juddering halt with “Crash” following the failure of “M. Butterfly.” With “Cosmopolis” being the first Mr. Cronenberg-penned screenplay since “eXistenZ” and “A Dangerous Method” widely criticized for lacking bite, hopes are high that “Cosmopolis” might be a return to the edgier Mr. Cronenberg of old.
Mr. Pattinson’s fans will have their own query answered in the first few minutes, in which we’re forced to adjust to a stream of dense, complex and jargon-filled dialogue. Any R-Paz completists remaining in the cinema beyond this point do so at their own peril. Mr. Pattinson plays Eric Packer, a 28-year-old capital finance genius whose intimidating intelligence and neurotic obsessions come straight out of the eccentric billionaire handbook. In a typical act of contrariness, he decides to make a pilgrimage to his favorite barber on the other side of New York in his stretch limousine the same day as a scheduled presidential visit and against the wishes of a security advisor (Kevin Durand) who’s permanently attuned to the chatter of Packer’s would-be assassins. Ostensibly the film is one of those near-real-time road movies where the protagonist’s odyssey is continually thwarted, making the destination all but unreachable. But in fact it ends up being more of a dark-night-of-the-soul story in which Packer might lose everything in one day; a day packed with incident and a revolving cast of incidental characters (a bit like a more highbrow “After Hours,” you could say).
As he crosses a frenzied New York, he picks up a variety of passengers, including boffin technicians, hookers, rap moguls and a doctor, whose presence gives rise to the most memorable prostate examination scene in cinema since “Fingers.” There’s also, repeatedly, his wife (Sarah Gadon), whom Packer is continually trying to bed because seemingly their strange marriage of convenience is yet to be consummated.
During most of these encounters, Packer prods and provokes his lesser mortals with elliptical philosophical musings on money and society, all in a roughly identical tenor. But the most interesting exchange occurs when he’s visited by an intellectual equal: a consultant played by Samantha Morton who rants impenetrably about how cyber-finance is changing the nature of time. Why Packer couldn’t just watch TEDTalks on one of his many backseat monitors and be done with it, is never clarified.
Despite the film’s synopsis, it doesn’t entirely take place within the confines of the limousine, and it never feels restrictive in a one-setting sense, but in any case Packer’s futuristic limousine is a beguiling location to spend time in. Immediately noticeable is the interior’s eerie silence, completely insulated from the noise of the often chaotic outside world, which further accentuates the accompanying otherworldly dialogue. (Packer later explains the car has been modified using a cork-lining process refereed to as prousting — just one of dozens of intriguing allusions in the script we barely have time to process.) Visually the limo is also fascinating, with its Giger-esque biological curves and blue neon it looks like it could have been a more suitable interior of the “Prometheus” spaceship than the one that appears in that film.
In fact “Cosmopolis” generally feels requisitely cinematic, certainly in terms of mise-en-scène, which is a relief after “A Dangerous Method” (which seemed to consist of characters endlessly going backwards and forward to each other’s drawing rooms and offices). But while it doesn’t feel hidebound in a geographical sense, Mr. Cronenberg’s dialogue is ironically more theatrical in this adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel than in the stage-originated “A Dangerous Method.” Characters discuss biological issues like “the smell of sexual discharge” with deadpan detachment, while oft-repeated motifs reoccur and questions are often responded to with more questions - devices reminiscent of the works of Harold Pinter or Neil LaBute. (Mr. Cronenberg is also a big Samuel Beckett admirer.) Mr. Cronenberg’s own scripts have been mannered like this before, notably in “Crash” and “eXistenZ,” but coupled with the esoteric nature of the dialogue’s substance, this style seems somewhat excessive.
In unpacking the film, we have to focus on Packer himself, a curious character who hypocritically combines a neurotic health obsession with an impulsive self-destructive urge. This contradiction suggests that Packer symbolizes 21st-century capitalism itself — hubristic in an unassailable belief in its own supremacy while simultaneously harboring a nonchalant death wish. In the fascinating, if overlong, final sequence of the film where Packer confronts his nemesis (Paul Giamatti), another key theme emerges: that of the inherent impotence and self-aggrandizing of alternatives to capitalism. Thankfully, Mr. Pattinson portrays the ultra-complex Packer perfectly, his veneer of detached contempt concealing hints of susceptibility and doubt beneath the surface. It’s already a more impressive attempt at pretty-boy image-shredding than many of Leonardo DiCaprio’s and Johnny Depp’s fabled attempts.
Some have complained that the film feels 10 years out of date, as the novel essentially references the particular tone of the dot-com finance era, and while its crowds of rampaging anarchists may bring to mind the pre-millennium tension of films like “12 Monkeys” and “Strange Days,” its investigation into the nature of capitalism is surely as pertinent as ever. Whether it’s successful on its own terms is another matter, and unfortunately for Mr. Cronenberg it can’t be considered a complete return to form. In many ways it’s the most interesting film he’s made in some time, but being such an opaque and wordy work makes it almost a chore to fully engage with. Dealing with such weighty themes in such an abstract manner at such a perilous time for the world economy may also be self-defeating — this feels intellectual without being incisive. At 108 minutes, it’s also uncharacteristically overlong for a director who’s previously admitted to inserting stand-alone opening credit sequences purely to pad out durations. We may have to wait a while longer for a return of the old Mr. Cronenberg who can balance truly intelligent ideas with muscular and challenging imagery, but this is at least a step in the right direction.