Hoberman: "Cosmopolis" Take Two—On Second Viewing, the Film Reveals a Layered Metaphor for the 21st Century
On first viewing, David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” struck me as a perversely faithful yet detached adaptation of an uncharacteristically tedious Don DeLillo novel in which, apparently motivated by a not entirely conscious desire for self-annihilation as well as a chauffeur, a self-made 28-year-old billionaire spends an entire day traversing the gridlock of midtown Manhattan because he wants a haircut.
Although adventurous in its overt formalism, “Cosmopoils” seemed lacking in brio, a kind of narcotic Fellini trip that, in writing an appreciation of the Cronenberg oeuvre, I characterized as “an exercise in constant natter and glacial forward glide — a movie that lulls even as it disconcerts.” Seen again with a paying audience at the Walter Reade (and without the burden of expectation), “Cosmopolis” came across as a credible, intelligent, fully realized piece of work, well-acted, charged with subtext, and marred mainly by the filmmaker’s struggle to release the comic elements he found in DeLillo’s labored novel.
“Cosmopolis” is rife with alienated (and alienating) speechifying. Still, having laughed aloud at more than a few of the lines and fully savored the extravagantly deadpan slapstick of the scene in which the driven protagonist Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) sits expressionless in his screen-saturated space capsule while his pet oracle (Samantha Morton) babbles on about the flow of cyber capital (“money has lost its narrative”) with the increasingly graffiti’d limo stuck in what looks like a Times Square riot replete with self-immolating protestors, I have to revise my characterization: “Cosmopolis” is as an exercise in outlandish dialogue and bone-dry humor, a contemporary allegory that is also a sustained riff on the idea of a virtual world.
The action is largely contained in the sound-proofed Packermobile, an entity that, like capitalism, must keep moving or perish, but the movie is far less continuous — and coolly impervious to human interest — than my first impression. The third act intervention by Packer’s disgruntled employee Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti) may be the most sustained disruption, but it’s hardly the only one. There’s the vaudeville bit in which Packer engages in contact-free sex with his advisor (Emily Hampshire), Juliette Binoche’s extravagant diva turn, Mathieu Almaric’s cameo rant, the way Packer’s smug chief of security (Kevin Durand) functions as the increasingly irrational protagonist’s unheeded reality principle, and even the ebb and flow of the ambient sound design.
Cronenberg was present at the Walter Reade and, as structurally over-determined as “Cosmopolis” is, it was interesting to learn in a post-screening Q&A that he doesn’t do extensive rehearsals or work from storyboards. The mock action paintings that frame the movie would seem to indicate his preferred method, filming in the moment with actors responding to their actual situation. “I really like shooting in confined spaces,” he remarked, citing the compression and intensity of the Israeli film “Lebanon,” which is set entirely inside a tank.
“Lebanon” is a movie with a strong ruling metaphor — the state of Israel as implacable armored vehicle — and so is “Cosmopolis.” The metaphor, however, is not simply Packer’s car nor Packer himself so much as the actor who plays him. As Robert Pattinson appears in every scene, you might say that “Cosmopolis” is his vehicle and also, as Cronenberg characterized the actor as being “excited but afraid” during the shoot, that the movie is something of a documentary portrait. Cronenberg was coy in discussing how he came to cast the “Twilight” series heartthrob as his protagonist and resisted making any connection between Pattinson’s past and current roles. Nevertheless there is that line delivered by Benno Levin: In the movie’s final scene, he tells Packer, “You’re like someone already dead — many centuries dead.”
Pallid and red-eyed, Packer is a corpse animated by desire (whether to own the Rothko Chapel or the experience of being tasered by a beautiful woman) and Levin might as well be quoting the section of Karl Marx’s magnum opus devoted to the notion of the working day: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” Cronenberg’s streamlined adaptation of DeLillo’s novel is a 21st century movie with the underlying sturm und drang of a 19th century manifesto.