Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, June 29, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (2012)

20. Cosmopolis

“Cosmopolis” was the point I lost interest in David Cronenberg. This was reasoning was two-fold and both were pretty shallow. Firstly, he decided to team up with Robert Pattison. The only thing I found more insipid and cloying than the automated cardboard dolls from the “Twilight” films have been their attempts to gain some hipster cred by appearing in artsy-fartsy films by beloved directors. Secondly, I was just increasingly exhausted with Cronenberg's refusal to make another horror movie. I wanted meat guns and telepods, mugwumps and rage children, not pretentious satires about billionaires in limos. A few years have passed and I like to think I've matured a little. It was time for me to give “Cosmopolis” a chance.

Eric Parker is twenty-eight years old. He is a millionaire, through the trading and selling of money he never sees. He is married to a beautiful young woman who is also from a rich family. Despite this, he feels uneasy. He decides one day to get a haircut. He sits inside a limousine, which moves at a crawl through a gridlocked city. During the day long trip, his fortune start to crumble. His wife threatens to leave him. His feelings of alienation with the world around him only grow stronger. Before the day is over, Eric Parker's life will be threatened.

I have never read the Don DeLillo novel that “Cosmopolis” is adapted from. From what I've heard, Cronenberg's film is an incredibly close adaptation. The material does not strike me as intrinsically cinematic. Much of “Cosmopolis” is made up of people sitting in a car and talking at each other. Not with but at. “Cosmopolis” is essentially a series of rambling monologues. Characters talk at lengths about all sorts of abstract concepts. Every line of dialogue is a faux-witty bon mont about the nature of existence. One person even admits that she does not understand the actual meaning of what she pontificates about. All of “Cosmopolis” is like this. The characters talk like alien drama students, speaking at lengths in bizarre and overly specific ways about topics that are ultimately meaningless.

This approach makes “Cosmopolis,” right out of the gate, a grating and impenetrable watch. I was finding the movie boring and irritating. Until I started to notice something else. “Cosmopolis” is a film about an alpha male billionaire having a nervous breakdown. Eric Packer is obsessed with control. As someone who has made himself rich in his twenties, he should have everything in order. But it's not. His invisible money is disappearing for reasons he can't grasp. The traffic in the city is so thick that a trip to get a haircut becomes a daylong trek. His newly acquired trophy wife won't have sex with him. His prostate is an abnormal shape. Packer gets sweatier and more disheveled as the film progresses, to the point where he's peeing in a bottle at one point. Cronenberg was once attached to direct “American Psycho.” “Cosmopolis,” another story about a hollow-hearted Wall Street trader and his fragile male ego, gives you a good idea of what that might've looked like.

It's also sort of fun when Cronenberg fuses his love of fancy cars with the loftier, more philosophical goals of his films. “Cosmopolis' is set entirely in a high tech limousine. It's outfitted with televisions, Wi-Fi, a mini-bar, rotating seats, and even an ultrasound machine. Cronenberg shoots the inside of the limo like a futuristic space ship. Eric sits in a Captain Kirk-like command chair, the leather-bound interior looking massive. The outside world flashes through the windows, rarely affecting the incredibly smooth ride. Cronenberg utilizes intentionally dodgy green screen, making it seem even more like Packer is cruising through outer space. The limousine is “Cosmopolis'” central metaphor, symbolic of the disconnect Eric feels with the world around him. It's no mistake that the car gets more roughed up as Packer becomes more unable to ignore his crumbling life.

“Cosmopolis,” in its own way, features the very Cronenbergian fusion of man and machine. The insides of the sterile, high-tech limo contrasts with the stinking flesh of its inhabitants. Packer has sex in the car, his pale skin become clammier and more corpse-like during the act. In one of the film's most interesting moments, he has a prostate exam in the vehicle. Squirming in discomfort or possible orgasmic throes, he tries to carry on a conversation while the latex and lube squishes off-screen. There's a discomfort with the flesh – such as when Eric blows a hole in his hand – and a need to replace it with cool, emotionless machinery in “Cosmopolis.” If the limo is the armor protecting the vulnerable, meaty Packer from the outside world, he's as much a body horror cyborg as Seth Brundel's final form or the car crash fetishists in “Crash.”

Something that's frustrating about “Cosmopolis” is whether it's suppose to mean anything or not. The constant chatter about the economy, currency, business, death, human rationality and other topics are obviously meant to become empty noise after a while.  Yet the film is clearly about the class separation wealth creates in America. This is most interestingly explored in a subplot about an anarchist protest. They fling dead rats into fancy restaurants. That imagery continues with a giant rat puppet they carry through the streets. We even see one such protester try to stab a businessman to death on Chinese television. One anarchist self-immolates like Thích Quảng Đức, a sight which naturally does not move Packer or his passenger much. This dovetails with the film's climax, which features another victim of the capitalistic system taking his revenge on Packer. Yet it's also, ultimately, more chatter from a film full of it.

As inscrutably weird and self-aggravatingly pretentious as “Cosmopolis” is, it's also the closest thing Cronenberg has made to a straight-up comedy by this point. There's a definite absurd thread running throughout “Cosmopolis.” Packer constantly being denied by his wife, his hemorrhaging horniness clear on his face, is sort of funny. A rogue protester splatters his face with a cream pie. (And then, like everyone else in the movie, talks and talks about it.) Amusingly, the cream pie residue remains on his face for the rest of the movie. When Eric finally makes it to the barber shop, the film's hyper-verbal tendencies comically bend towards folksy witticisms. This absurd streak ultimately curdles into things happening without much reason, like when Packer murders his bodyguard just because, but it's sort of interesting while it lasts.

So, what of Robert Pattison? He seems well cast as a pretty boy millionaire without much of a heart or soul. The part does not require the actor to be likable or humane. Yet, I'll give him some props, as he becomes more compelling as the character's grip on sanity begins to slip. There's a compelling moment where he cries about the death of his favorite rap star. He comes close to resembling a genuine human being in the scene where he chats with his old barber. Pattinson is certainly capable of spitting the script's reams and reams of dialogue. He gives a good performance, as much as is possible in an cryptic movie like this. But, like I said, the part is also really in his wheelhouse.

The film has a diverse supporting cast. However, since all the characters in “Cosmopolis” are delivering verbose but destitute monologues in a vacuum, it's hard for anyone to make too much of an impression. Sarah Gadon is robotic as Packer's wife. Kevin Durand is similarly stiff as his head of security. Yet some cast members emerge as more memorable. Jay Baruchel, as Packer's partner, is one of the few characters to actually show normal human emotions. Emily Hampshire, as the athletic chief of fiance, deflects Packer's bullshit with curt sarcasm and a weird sexual tension. Samantha Morton gets some of the film's most circular dialogue but delivers it with a puckish smile I like. Juliet Binoche makes the most of her one scene as Packer's sexually vivacious art consultant.

The showiest cast member in “Cosmopolis” is Paul Giamatti, as what I think is a disgruntled ex-employee who is attempting to kill Packer. Like everyone else in the film, he talks endlessly. Giamatti's monologues seem especially incoherent. Pattinson's feelings about the situation change from one minute to the next. By the time we arrive at this scene, the viewer is pretty tired of “Cosmopolis'” shenanigans. The ending of the film drags terribly, as it's clear this isn't going anywhere. It's vaguely interesting, the same way the rest of the movie is, but is ultimately frustrating and unfulfilling, also like the rest of the movie.

With cinematography from the ever reliable Peter Suschitzky, Cronenberg at least makes sure “Cosmopolis” looks good. There are several really cool tracking shots, following Pattinson as he runs through grungy back allies. The director makes the limo setting look as sterile and cold as possible, clearly going hand-in-hand with his inhuman themes. Howard Shore's score, a collaboration with indie rock band Metric, helps create this atmosphere of uneasy and icy animosity.

Cronenberg described “Cosmopolis” as a “hardcore art movie.” That's accurate. If the film hadn't starred Pattison right when he was red hot, I can't imagine it having any commercial appeal whatsoever. It's a dense and unpleasant movie, designed to confound expectations and bug the viewer. However, there are a handful of interesting ideas or moments contained within. If I had watched it in 2012, I probably would've hated it. The movie definitely requires an open mind. I still didn't like it very much but I eventually grasp some of what's going on under the hood of this one. [Grade: C+]

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