01 September 2012


It's probably better not to presume that one is smarter than David Cronenberg. This has been my constant thought ever since walking out of Cosmopolis, which is in keeping with that director's career insofar as it is bizarre as all hell, and part of what makes it bizarre is that I'm pretty much definitely certain that it's meant to be unlikable. At any rate, I use this thought to comfort myself with the fact that I, anyway, didn't like it in all sorts of ways, and having done all the hard work of being a full-on A Dangerous Method apologist, I didn't want to feel that I'd spontaneously turned into the kind of viewer who finds Cronenberg's very special brand of "fuck you, viewer" to be too much hard work.

Cosmopolis is hard work, all right. Adapted from Don DeLillo's 2003 book - with inordinate faithfulness to the cant of his prose, I am told, though I've never read any DeLillo - it takes place in New York, at some vague point in the eternal present; it gets special resonance because of the Occupy Wall Street movement, though the film was in the can a full month before the protests began. Here, an unfathomably wealthy 28-year-old trader named Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) rides in a limousine, heading across Manhattan to get a haircut. Stuck in an endless, apparently causeless traffic jam (the president's visit, riots, and a celebrity funeral are all trotted at as explanations with an implicit "...but that's not the whole story" attached), Packer conducts business meetings and sexual trysts in this limo, large and high-tech enough to function as its own ecosystem, and with most of the people he captures in his unpleasantly silent, glossy sarcophagus, he indulges in lengthy philosophical discussions, mostly about financial behavior in the days of late-stage capitalism.

Those conversations are fucking death. Cronenberg's screenplay, they say, captures the rhythm and diction of DeLillo's writing quite precisely, which in practice means that the film's dialogue is intensely stilted, extraordinarily aware of its own limited vocabulary (the word "this" achieves totemic importance over the course of the movie), flows with a certain captivating arrhythmia, and is packed wall-to-wall with virtually undeliverable lines of obnoxious, overbaked bullshit (the scene that Pattinson shares with Samantha Morton in particular is a nightmare of esoterica that should have netted the actors combat pay). I don't think this a mistake - scratch that, it'd definitely not a mistake - but knowing that the movie has something awfully specific in mind with its hollow, irritating conversations, much like knowing it has something specific in mind with its dull-eyed non-characterisations, is not exactly the same as making those things palatable.

The thing about Cosmopolis, is it's obviously a critique of capitalism. I wish there was a word that meant the same thing as "obviously" but was more intense, because I'd use that instead. That's how obvious it is that what the film is doing is using Packer as the embodiment of pointless, rampant finance, and wealth accruing for the sake of accrued wealth, at the expense of abandoning everything we typically think of as human feeling. Nor is it simply a critique of the disconnected wealthy, although the submarine-like limo that isolates Packer from the messy and violent humanity around him could be a more pointed symbol of anti-elite sentiment if it were being deployed in a 1920s Soviet film; it's a critique of the whole matter of living in the current century, given how equally everyone involved, even the furthest from Packer's impossible wealth, seems to suffer from the same emotional dislocation and over-communicative, content-free way of speaking.

And that's it, right there: the doomed universe of Cosmopolis is one that got that way in part because of the overdetermined philosophies that parade themselves emptily in every moment of ever scene, and because of the shellacked people who wander out for the cameos but hardly seem to be "acting" in any conventional sense. It's important for Cosmopolis to fail as a conventional movie, because conventional movies are part of the system that Cosmopolis is attacking; heck, that's why teen idol Pattinson makes such perfect sense in the main role, given that his chief point of interest as an actor to date has been his inflexible lack of affect, and given that putting someone famous primarily for being famous and rich for doing very little fits so perfectly into a movie where pop culture and enormous wealth are so endlessly mocked as they are here.

Thus: the movie is "bad" deliberately. Or, if we don't like the word "bad", and I don't in this case, alienating and unwatchable. What it's not, for damn certain, is incidental: it is terrifyingly well-directed, for despite well over half of it taking place inside an admittedly spacious car, it's amazing how rich the visuals actually end up being, and how much the film's rising action (from a languid, wandering opening third to a brutally tight final scene) works on the basic level of a thriller, despite how much it might seem like nothing in the whole world is less thrilling than people talking about concepts in hushed tones as Howard Shore's score brilliantly uncomfortable score drones away. The momentum Cronenberg is able to wring out a story that is so much about being stuck in one confined space is as impressive as a coup du cinéma as they come, particularly given how fully we are locked out of the protagonist's head for the entire time we know him. And whenever there's nothing else to fall back on, the film always keeps in reserve a line of random, dark, absurd humor, the kind that's funny almost entirely for its incongruity; if there has ever been a point in human history when the phrase "asymmetrical prostate" got a bigger laugh than it does at its second appearance in this movie, I've never heard of it.

If it sounds like the quintessential "not for everybody" movie, that's because it emphatically isn't for everybody, or even most; I'd have called myself a diehard Cronenbergian up till now, and other than trying to parse out exactly how it works the way it does, I cannot imagine that I'd enthusiastically watch it again, ever. But it's a singular vision, all right, and it's doing exactly what it sets out to do - a noble place for a movie to end up, and it's for this reason that the film is admirable, though for myself, I cannot imagine that admiration shading into actual, legitimate love.



Jeremy said...

One of the things that doesn't get enough credit on this website are those great tags/labels you use. My favorites include "movies for pretentious people" just because it's so self-deprecating and honest, "needless adaptations", which seems to be happening more and more these days as Hollywood scrambles for ideas to remake and reboot, and "joyless mediocrity" because I don't think there's a worst crime in cinema then that. Terminator Salvation immediately comes to mind, my main impression of that film being, "Yep, that was certainly a movie that just appeared on the screen for a hour or so!"

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

I know I'm in the decided minority here, but, for various reasons it would take too long to enumerate here, I hate DeLillo with a morbid intensity. And the *very worst thing about him* is his dialogue: all his characters sound exactly the same, and that means they all talk in stilted, detached, faux-profundities. It's not surprising, then, that that would be the worst part of this movie.

RickR said...

@Jeremy- I agree, Tim's tags are hilarious. Other favorites: "movies ostensibly for children" and "production-design-o-rama".


james1511 said...

I haven't read the book, though I've read enough of DeLillo's other stuff to know I've no interest in seeing a film based on anything by him. That said, I've no doubt I'll do a more substantial exploration one day of Cronenberg's oeuvre than I've done in the past, and this will likely be part of that. Your idea that the film is "bad" for deliberate strategic reasons is probably the kindest thing I've seen anyone say about the film so far.

Matt said...

I'm just looking forward to all the Robert Pattinson fans from Twilight going to see this.

Tim said...

Jeremy, Rick- Aw, thanks. I like 'em too.

GeoX- That is exactly what a friend of mine said, who sort of liked the movie and used to like DeLillo, and has since grown out of it. None of this suggests to me that I need to run about filling this gap in my knowledge.

James- Definitely minor Cronenberg, and I'll admit that my "kindness" is hedging, simply because I have too much respect for the man not to. The experience was definitely not very edifying.

Matt- I had one of those! Or, at least, a woman around 20 who left early on; even before the shot where the camera is just a few centimeters short of showing us Lil' R-Patz.

StephenM said...

Just for the record, I think the kindest thing anyone has said about the film is Amy Taubin including it in her Sight and Sound Top Ten List. Which is pretty darn kind.

I have seen a few other very positive reviews, but it's certainly no understatement to call it highly divisive. Personally, I'm intrigued, and am looking forward to seeing it, even if it's likely I won't end up particularly liking it.

Surly Duff said...

I was so torn when I first saw the trailer because Cronenberg's movies are fascinating (if nothing else), but I abhor anything associated with Don Delillo after reading some of his work.

One does not read Don Delillo, one suffers through his writing. I could write a scathing critique of Delillo, but this is about the movie, not the inability of an author to reign in his wonderment of being able to string together lots of words that are not associated with each other into a non-coherent plot, not to mention his stilted dialogue. Sorry, I really hate that man after wading through the incomprehensible "Underworld". Unfortunately, it sounds like the worst tendencies of Delillo's books made it into the movie, which will ultimately ruin the experience for me as it would force me to rehash the experience I have with his books.

And it still got a 7? For shame.

Tim said...

Stephen- That is VERY kind. It's definitely worth seeing, but not because it is obviously and inherently good.

Surly Duff- Toyed with a 6, but what it comes down to is that it's formally magnificent, and however irritating the script is, that sort of thing counts for a lot 'round these parts.

David Greenwood said...

Fine, I'll be the guy again. This is my favorite Cronenberg film since Videodrome, which is my favorite by a comfortable margin. There are two Cronenbergs: The one who actually hopes to reach an audience by tweaking an accessible film just enough (Eastern Promises), and the cold, icy, analytical one that is too busy marvelling at the little ants of humanity to bother wondering "who the hell would want to watch this?" (This one).

Having never read DeLillo, I would never be able to get through a novel of this story. Having this undeliverable dialog delivered in a film has the advantage of keeping you from thinking too hard about it. At a certain point it just becomes music. The final scene in particular was unbelievably intense, with it's constant chorus of "This alone" and "I know this".

This was just incredible... for me. I have heard more than one person directly compare it to Videodrome, and I think there's definitely echoes of that film's James Wood's role in Pattinson's here. Cosmopolis was such a freaking rush. I'm weird.