29 year old business wunderkind Eric Packer wakes up one morning in New York City and decides that he wants and needs a haircut to keep up appearances amid a time of financial unrest for him and the rest of the world, leading to him spending nearly an entire day travelling and working from his heavily customized white limousine. Such is the entire actual plot arc of American author and laureate Don DeLlilo’s book Cosmopolis, one that its director of adaptation to the big screen, David Cronenberg, adheres to quite rigidly to stay true to the original source material’s beats and rhythms of lengthy dialog punctuated by fleetingly loud actions or personal confrontations. So slavish to its own design, there’s actually very little of Cronenberg on screen here to be seen and a whole lot of DeLillo. While there are flourished of Cronenberg’s unique sense of vision, this striking and thoughtful film takes the high road to tell a story that had quite a few themes dealing with society’s static sense of conformity to begin with.
In the film, Eric is played by Robert Pattinson; a wise and prescient choice for DeLillo’s leading man seeing that he comes from a style of new money made up of pretty boys described at one point by one of Eric’s numerous, long suffering assistants as being so dreamy they’re practically on life support. Stymied in his efforts to reach his status symbol goal by global anti-finance protests and losing millions by the second due to the rise of the Yuan he heavily leveraged against, Pattinson’s Eric serves as the viewer’s eyes and ears throughout this world. We’re seeing the world exactly as he sees it and not how it actually is since there isn’t a single scene in the film that Pattinson isn’t in. It’s the true starmaking performance that the actor has probably long hoped for and he carries the film wonderfully.
Eric isn’t detached from his world despite how aloof he must seem. He’s a workaholic and cursed with the downfall of great intellect and wealth. He is the embodiment of DeLilo’s seemingly Marxist philosophy that at some point capitalism will begin to move so quickly that no one will be able to keep up. With his boyish good looks and ability to turn his character on a dime, Pattinson shows how Eric is tormented by his ability to see all sides to an issue and how his own knowledge makes him equal parts paranoid and reckless. Even his own wife that he barely has any relationship at all with (played by Sarah Gadon) remarks that Eric has a great deal of science and ego combined.
If it seems like I’m focusing too much on Pattinson’s performance and resorting a bit to summarizing the film, that’s because other than talking about a whole lot of lofty concepts – many of which are left purposefully vague as per the novel’s vision – this actually amount to being more of an actor’s showcase than it would be a triumph for Cronenberg as a director. It’s probably, after much mulling over, one of his better films in terms of structure and audacity, but not really as a filmmaker. There’s nothing particularly wrong with letting the material supercede any sort of artistic vision, but Cronenberg seems almost too complacent to let DeLilo’s legendarily lengthy dialogues take over while adding little to them. It’s lovingly crafted and purposefully cold to the touch, but it also feels like an ingredient is missing to make it feel like anything other than a straight ahead reading of a text.
The cast does bring the film to life more often than not, but aside from the always wonderful Kevin Durand (as Eric’s chief bodyguard Torval) and Gadon, none of the other characters in the film show up for more than a single scene each, indicitave of Eric’s status as someone constantly on the move. Jay Baruchel has a nice moment early on as one of Eric’s security analysts who doesn’t really have any answers to any of the questions he’s being asked, and Samantha Morton proves to be a commanding presence as a worker under Eric’s employ that makes him finally realize that his enormous wealth means nothing. Even Paul Giamatti, in a pivotal late film appearance as a former co-worker out for revenge, only has a sustained 20 minute appearance to make an impression, but he still puts in phenomenal work.
While essentially a word for word repurposing of DeLillo’s dialogue with only slight changes being made to the story (particularly in the film’s final quarter hour), Cronenberg does a great job on the writing side of things with his first screenplay since eXistenZ in 1999. The staccato notes within long passages of argumentative speeches feel fresh and believable on screen, which becomes hard to do when adapting a writer as almost impenetrably esoteric as DeLillo. As a director with an eye for talent, he’s also wisely surrounded himself with a cast that has an across the board understanding of the material without a single weak link in the bunch.
The arguments will be made back and forth that the film still isn’t a “return to form” for the director or that it’s a masterpiece that will be heralded for its prescient nature given the current state of the global economy, but what makes Cosmopolis brilliant in its own way is that none of those arguments matter when the film itself is allowed to be scrutinized on its own merits. It’s a hard and challenging film for casual viewers to ever hope to have in “in” with, but for those willing to follow along and let the film wash over them in the same way a great book can take over the imagination, Cosmopolis is a heck of a ride. It’s an impossible film to sum up with a full critical analysis in less than 1,000 words, but it will lead to some great discussions amongst those who see it.