This is legendary Canadian ‘body horror’ arthouse supremo David Cronenberg (‘The Fly’, ‘Crash’) adapting for the screen legendary, reclusive ‘great American novel’ writer Don Delillo, most famous for his vast, late-nineties cold war tome ‘Underworld’.
Delillo’s 2003 book ‘Cosmopolis’ was badly received by critics, and there was a reason for that - it sucked. Can you see where I’m going with this? Unlike his super-cerebral, heavyweight successes, ‘Cosmopolis’ was obscure, weird, self-important and boring.
Well this is a very good adaptation, as it has faithfully transplanted most of those qualities to the screen. The book found new adherents because its predictions of massive economic collapse from an excess of ‘casino’ or ‘cyber’-capitalism have unexpectedly proved accurate, with Delillo retrospectively labeled amazingly wise and far-sighted. But, Hollywood, that doesn’t mean the story is any GOOD!
‘Cosmopolis’ stars everyone’s fave brit home counties hunk Robert Pattinson, who actually is a great actor and does a fine job here as an unspeakably over-privileged young turk investment banker. It also features various transatlantic thesps parading through the film at regular intervals for roughly a scene each, all clearly eager to bask in the arthouse cred of both Delillo and Cronenberg, in the hopes that something amazing will occur from this coming together of intellectual titans, and great cinema will emerge. To be fair there was a decent chance that it would. It just doesn’t. The pretentious subject matter and execution are too long-winded and dull to be of much interest.
Like its iconic limo however, ‘Cosmopolis’ does have some pretty stylish fixtures and furnishings, and is a not unenjoyable ride if you want to kick back and catch some zees. An oddly off-kilter opening drops us in a vaguely cyber-punk near future somewhere between ‘Gattaca’ and ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’, with yuppie Pattinson in a weirdly silent, otherworldly back of a limo scene. There is beautifully fluid existentialism. Impeccably dressed, dreamy big city clichés drip strange and abstract one-liners from unemotional lips. The whole thing is much more Lynch than Cronenberg, reminiscent of ‘Lost Highway’. i.e. there are no clues as to what on earth is going on in this plot and no promise of one until probably three weeks after you've seen it.
Robbo is a super-slick asset manager, and spends his days having high-level discussions with various strategists over what to speculate on, which all ascend (or descend) into lengthy philosophical rumination. Unfortunately the stylish minimalism, with intriguingly zero sound design – only silence, soon begins to stray over into cheesy and laughable scenery chewing with lines like:
'We’re speculating into the void!'
After a while the characters become nauseating and irritating. Especially once we realize we are not going to get anything ELSE except them in the back of the limo uttering pretentious profundities.
This is a high risk arthouse experiment, full of shiny, fetishistic shots of mysterious, post-Matrix futureshock stylings and non-sequituous conversations in which nobody answers any questions only asks new ones. 'I don't know what money is anymore' muses Rob.
When Juliette Binoche arrives, both the thus-far-undiscovered score and the plot, like the limo, begin a slow crawl forward from their previous stillness.
But only just. This film is an interesting visual study, a futuristic Edward Hopper painting full of melancholy neon, reflections in chrome, etc. but not much more. It aspires to be a cyber yuppies's version of ‘Taxi Driver’ and other great in-the-back-of-cars movies like ‘Night on Earth’ but is way too indulgent with itself, ending up only as verbose, self-important indie formalism.
To pile on the intellectual worthiness this is supposed to be an update of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. It is very post ‘American Psycho’. Pattinson’s character is a smarter, less neurotic Pat Bateman pushing forty and even more lost as to his place in the universe. ‘Cosmopolis’ is achingly post-everything. Even the motion graphics are self-consciously layered so as to be obvious. This is post-realism. We're SUPPOSED to know that the universe of this film is artificial and created. Like characters in the Matrix who somehow know where they are but have reconciled themselves to it, creating the creamily existential film noir melancholy on display here. But despite all this stylish surface, the film never actually manages to be cool.
An increasing succession of character-acting heavyweights get into the back of the limo to pontificate on grand themes of academic and economic theory.
'the glow of cyber capital, so radiant and seductive'
At this point ‘Cosmopolis'’ worthy society-commentating agenda becomes more apparent. The current economic woes of the western world, the occupy movement etc, which seems to be the trend this year after Batman's 'street'-relevant subtext.
This is Tom Wolfe’s capitalistic 'Masters of the Universe' in JG ballad’s 'High Rise' cyber-punk future. So über-literary it doesn't feel it has to fulfill the requirements of the 'lesser' artform of cinema. Of all the book adaptions that are in love with the prose poetry of the source text dialogue at the expense of the audience’s boredom threshold, this may be the worst offender.
Probably the film’s only really nice idea is that the rabid street protests directly outside have no effect whatsoever on the mellowly atmosphere-controlled interior of the limo. This is the distance of the super-rich these days from the unwashed masses. Later a celebrity friend of theirs dies and the same crowds turn out with candles to celebrate the Wacko Jacko-style figure's demise.
The giant stuffed rat is a highlight (don’t ask). And the idea that we are accelerating through time with the character. That Delillo is predicting economic meltdown in real time as our character himself falls on hard times.
Unfortunately the parts of this that are startling, present and stylish are eventually, via Samantha Morton’s tortuously overlong and tedious convo, overtaken by the parts that are basically the local rep theatre’s self-importantly pompous production of some Sartre-esque self-indulgent intellectual claptrap. It is boooooooring.
The regular bouts of gratuitous sex and nudity do not do the job of bringing the intended excitement. Whereas in previous Cronenberg films they were essential and shocking, here they just seem desperate.
There are some pretty good lines though:
“We’re people in the world. We need to eat and talk”.
“If he was any dreamier I'd have to put him on life support.”
FINALLY, Rob gets out of the car to have a date with his significant other Sarah Gadon, a great piece of casting reminiscent of a young Veronica Lake.
Then we're into a final, endlessly long barbershop sequence, when the Olympic levels of narcissistic navel-gazing give way to extended urban anecdotes about driving cabs from the barber. It was at this point that the first audience member got up to leave. You just want this thing to hurry up and END ALREADY!
By the time Paul Giamatti appears you’re pretty much ready to shoot yourself in the head to relieve the tedium. Even that acting genius cannot elevate this unspeakable drudgery. This whole scene comes over like a particularly dull special features commentary. That the entire last third of this movie even exists feels like the product of some terrible accident in editing. Surely it was supposed to be deleted?
Okay the denouement, in particular the extended final shot, that eventually arrives an hour too late, is pretty cool. But by that time virtually all my interest in the characters had completely dissipated. Delillo may have written an end of the era masterwork that brings an Orwellian judgement on our casino capitalist puppet-masters. But this adaption despite its many fine actors is a turgid, overcooked snorefest.