Cosmopolis marks another misfire for David Cronenberg, whose prior film, last year’s A Dangerous Method, was sunk by too much stilted talk. Cosmopolis suffers from a similar problem: adapted from one of Don DeLillo’s slighter novels, its dialogue (much of which seems to have been lifted more or less verbatim from the text) is dense and tortuous, and there’s a lot of it to cut through. But Cronenberg is such a boldly intelligent artist that even his less successful films are worth seeing, this one included. Even if Cosmopolis may not be good enough to stand on its own as memorable cinema, it seamlessly fits into Cronenberg’s body of work in ways that are rarely not interesting or suggestive. Curiously, Cronenberg may be a master filmmaker whose corpus is greater than the sum of its parts, or at least one who isn’t hurt by the occasional dud. Even his weaker films are so vividly, identifiably his own, and so much of a piece with his masterpieces, that they start to feel somehow indispensable in their own rights. Cosmopolis is no exception. Watching it, we’re drawn into a nightmarish world of sex, violence, and bodily abjection that can only be called Cronenbergian, and we’re reminded of the kinds of inimitably weird moods and textures that have defined his work for over thirty years.
Set largely inside the confines of a lavishly outfitted stretch limo belonging to twenty-eight-year-old gazillionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), Cosmopolis is something of a companion film to Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), in which characters with a very particular sexual kink sought nihilistic pleasure in the violence of car accidents. Where that film explored the notion of sex and the body becoming increasingly subject to technology, Cosmopolis presents us with a related image of the body-as-machine. Sleekly groomed, emotionally numb, surrounded by leather upholstery and a myriad of glowing LCD screens, Packer is virtually a fixture of his own car, and the car is an extension of his body (he eats, drinks, has sex, and even goes to the bathroom inside). The film thus makes Packer into a somewhat obvious symbol of the twenty-first-century capitalist as cyborg. Like his limo, which he indulgently insists on taking through gridlocked Manhattan traffic in order to get a haircut, Packer moves through the world armored by his own money and privilege—though anarchist rioters on the street outside, who deface the car with graffiti and taunt him with dead rats, suggest that he may not be as invulnerable as he would like to think. It’s tough to gauge Pattinson’s largely deadpan performance here; best known from his work in the Twilight films as the vampire of many a pre-teen’s dreams, he’s made an intriguing career move in taking such an unlikable part, though as it’s written it doesn’t give him much of a chance to prove that he’s more than just a pretty face.
The film’s supporting characters are generally more sharply drawn, and they’re interestingly interpreted by a mélange of international actors (Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, Mathieu Amalric, Jay Baruchel). But the best performance is probably given by Paul Giamatti, playing a would-be assassin who confronts Pattinson in a lengthy scene near the end of the film. It’s a credit to Giamatti’s talents that he can take DeLillo’s arch, pithy, often clunky dialogue and make it sing.