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by Eric Kohn
May 25, 2012 10:44 AM
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How the Robert Pattinson Vehicle 'Cosmopolis' Appeals to David Cronenberg Fans (And Nobody Else)

Robert Pattinson in "Cosmopolis."
"My prostate is asymmetrical," says Robert Pattinson in one scene of David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis." As the affluent executive Eric Packer riding a limo around New York City in nearly every scene, Pattinson boldly submerges his stardom in the director's twisted anti-establishment tendencies. That the movie lacks the same depth in its message than the director's best works comes secondary to its satisfyingly Cronenbergian attributes. Since 2005's "A History of Violence," Cronenberg has ventured beyond the grotesque allegorical interests of his earlier movies, a shift that has led some longtime fans to assume he has softened up. As an enjoyably peculiar anti-capitalist indictment, "Cosmopolis" proves otherwise.

[Editor's Note: This review originally ran during the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. "Cosmopolis" opens this Friday in select theaters.]

Based on Don Delillo's 2003's novella, the movie follows Packer as he heads to the other side of town in pursuit of a haircut. The mission is constantly delayed by city traffic, work briefings, disgruntled employees, and other abrupt events that keep the action contained and secondary to elaborating on Packer's unique brand of villainy. As with the book, Cronenberg's screenplay opens with a line from Zbigniew Herbert's poem "Report from the Besieged City -- "a rat became the unit of currency" -- and applies it to Packer's embellished world, which has the cerebral qualities of dystopian sci-fi but otherwise may as well take place in the present. In his high-tech ride, Packer creeps through the city streets, literally shielded from the realities of the outside world. He's an ivory tower incarnate.

Over the course of a single day, his sense of security gradually unravels. Packer juggles multiple sex partners (portrayed in bit parts by Samantha Morton, Juliette Binoche and Sarah Gadon) and trades barbs with his scowling body guard (Kevin Durand), while making vein attempts to ignore the Occupy-like protestors dominating the streets even as the car gets buried in their graffiti. Cronenberg's script plays off Pattinson's unique blend of dreary fashion, using the actor more for his physicality than his acting chops; Pattinson's deadpan delivery is a sufficient vessel for the filmmaker's intentions of using Packer as a vessel for his politics.

Pattinson holds his own without exactly broadening his range.
Unfortunately, the restrained setting and emphasis on symbolism over plot makes significantly limits Cronenberg's filmmaking skill, resulting in an overly theatrical and often frustratingly obtuse atmosphere that rises and falls on the basis of the dialogue. Just when "Cosmopolis" threatens to dissolve into plodding exposition, however, Cronenberg regains the narrative intrigue with a prolonged concluding sequence that ventures out of the limo and into an apartment, where the character engages in a touchy showdown with a vengeful staffer (an over-the-top Paul Giamatti). It's here that the movie manages to deepen Packer's sensibilities by showing that his despotic lifestyle results more from a naivete endowed on him by society than from his own corrupt psyche.

Until that point, "Cosmopolis" essentially operates as a string of chatty vignettes, with some indictments of corporate extremes benefiting from their alienated delivery and others insufferably on-the-nose. To his credit, however, Cronenberg's trim approach avoids overstuffing the story with distracting details, implying much of Packer's fame and power without going out of the way to flesh it out. His confidence in the ideology takes precedence, and while never as shocking as "Naked Lunch," the new movie similarly inhabits its misguided protagonist's psyche.

Pattinson holds his own without exactly broadening his range. By simply taking the part, his presence has the dissonance of a James Franco performance act, at once thoroughly underwhelming and emboldened by the meta mystery of his attraction to the project. As a journalist at the movie's Cannes press conference pointed out, while not a literal vampire, Packer is certainly a blood-sucking capitalist.

A fragile, hot-tempered young man, Packer is drawn to place his fortune on the line with a high stakes stock market bet and the target of a pie-wielding would-be assassin (Mathieu Almaric). As such, he's the ideal metaphor for both the unchecked behavior and resulting antagonism of America's money-grubbing one-percent. When an underling asks him, "Do you ever get the feeling you don't know what's going on?" it sets the stage for Packer's ensuing identity crisis.

Its experimental nature means that "Cosmopolis" severely limits the potency of the message -- that is, you either accept Cronenberg's negative approach or reject it outright on the basis of the movie's persistent academic approach. If viewed more as visual essay than movie, however, "Cosmopolis" is a successful assault on modern social constructs. The final image mirrors the concluding visual of "eXistenZ," Cronenberg's pre-"Matrix" assault on reality, and "Cosmoplis" certainly shares it skepticism over making assumptions about the way the world works. With that provocative ending, "Cosmopolis" demonstrates that even a flawed throwback to Cronenberg's roots proves they run fairly deep.

Criticwire grade: B

HOW WILL IT PLAY? EOne picked up U.S. rights to the film ahead of Cannes, and while the star-studded cast and Cronenberg's name make this the company's biggest acquisition, it has yet to prove it can find a way to make audiences care. "Twilight" fans won't respond to Pattinson's uncharacteristic turn and only diehard Cronenberg fans are likely to spread positive word of mouth. In short, its commercial propositions are dicey.
 

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8 Comments

  • jspattzfan | September 4, 2012 12:15 PMReply

    I have seen the movie, read the book (twice) and loved Robert Pattinson's take on Eric Packer. The book isn't an easy read nor is the movie a romp in the park but it does make you think and the climax at the end with Paul Giamatti and Rob is excellant. This film is not everyone's cup of tea, but most of Rob's fans know this going in, so I wouldn't worry about them too much. This movie won't make much money, but the chance to work with Cronenberg and stretch himself out of the Twilight saga is commendable.

  • howard | August 13, 2012 12:28 PMReply

    Eric: Very interesting review. I am not surprised that the rabid crew that adores Pattinson will find wanting in your review. The amazing thing is that each of its firm persona, with superficial differences, is basically the same character with minor unique pattern adapted to the character he plays in each film. A Psychologist friend of mine refers to this acting as multi-output single personality.personality

  • Kim | July 6, 2012 7:04 AMReply

    Intresting review, but...
    "Pattinson holds his own without exactly broadening his range".
    This is so completely untrue. What is there in common between Eric Packer and other characters Pattinson has already played? Please. Nothing at all. Read (the several hundreds) other reviews. You may or may not like the movie, but the lead's performance is excellent.

    "As a journalist at the movie's Cannes press conference pointed out, while not a literal vampire, Packer is certainly a blood-sucking capitalist."
    Cronenberg unceasingly replied that the idea was flawed and irrelevant. If the lead actor had not done the vampire franchise, no one - absolutely no one - would ever have come up with the ridiculous idea of Eric Packer as financial vampire. The concept is not even present in the novel. It was invented by some journalist who thought himself witty to make a comparison with Twilight (why? why?) and it then spread virally. Other journalists just kept asking the question, like parrots. And were repeatedly told they were wonrg. The idea is so preposterous if you read the book and watch the film carefully.

  • Tomas | May 28, 2012 6:13 AMReply

    Okay, what's this for f*cking bullsh*t?! I'm a diehard Twi-Hard and can not wait to see Rob in this movie! Being a Twi-Hard doesn't mean you don't want to see Rob in another role as Edward Cullen! I liked all his movies until now. Wednesday, I'm seeing Cosmopolis, hopefully I like it, because it looks really good

  • abbeysbooks | May 26, 2012 3:57 AMReply

    I think it will probably be a good movie. Why I am disappointed is that it could have been a great one if Cronenberg had really understood the book DeLillo wrote. Eric Packer DESTROYS cyber capital (Zizek calls it Virtual Capital) in one day. Packer throws the money changers out of the temple of finance just because he felt like it. It is predictive of the 2008 derivative meltdown. His actions follow Francisco d'Anconia in Atlas Shrugged. Vija Kinski is the voice of Jean Baudrillard. And underneath it all lies Nietzsche (Rand's mentor and Baudrillard's) simmering away to excess and implosion, ending by demolishing what is evil. Cyber-capital has nothing to do with capital that has a product to offer, and everything to do with collapse and destruction of the social.

  • LeonRaymond | May 25, 2012 3:17 PMReply

    Stupid -Asshole and dumb, I saw only a few minutes of some of those Twilight movies, but I did like Pattinson's acting style and I want to see more, I want to give him the benefit of the doubt cause it is unfair to say this film will not have cross over fans. I love Cronenberg, but it interest me to see this film with Pattinson. it's out of the box and deep so lets let our selves see it and not let these critics who are trying to force you to watch one type of film and one type of actor in them. Have your own mindset and be respected for it. 90% of film critics never seen a ghetto and never lived in one but pretend to experts on life in a ghetto. Leave critics on the toilet where they belong !!!!!

  • Kate | May 25, 2012 12:23 PMReply

    I'm not a fan of Twilight nor am I a die hard Cronenberg fan. I am a fan of Robert Pattinson, will I see the movie because of him? Yes, to show support, however this movie has me more interested beyond the fact Rob is in the movie. I believe it will appeal to much more than Cronenberg and Pattinson fans. I have now read the book of the same title and I am anxiously awaiting the movie. Please, don't be so quick to assume it will only appeal to a certain audience.

  • Roselight | May 25, 2012 12:18 PMReply

    Come on, Eric, that last sentence is an unfair generalization. You need to take a page out of Pattinson's interview with Premiere France. A lot of us are his fans, from Twilight and beyond, and he clearly understood that.

    Excerpt of his interview:
    "When my casting in Cosmopolis was announced, I saw many of them buying Don DeLillo's book. And it doesn't shock them at all that I'm playing a role like this one. On the contrary, I feel like they want to see us succeed, for us to be successful after the saga. They want us to be loved and respected. They're aren't fans like any others, they might not all be movie fanatics, but I can feel in them a desire to become one. They're interested in what we do, even if it's an usual movie like Cosmopolis. Actors that are in popular hits or franchises, often feel like they have to do things that would please 'this' audience. But I think that they underestimate their spectators. I know that Twilight fans want to adapt themselves."