There are two kinds of people who will like five-minutes-into-the-future flick Cosmopolis: People want to take revenge on Robert Pattinson's hair after the Twilight movies, and people who are David Cronenberg completists. Cronenberg's latest film is a spare, unsettling tour of a New York City on the brink of collapse, trashed by Occupy-style anarchists and immobilized by corporate greed. All the action takes place inside billionaire Eric Packer's high tech limo, as well as from the venal perspective of this young financier's mind. Packer (Robert Pattinson) spends the entire day caught in traffic, on a quest to get a terrible haircut. Along the way, he's joined and abandoned by a stream of colleagues and lovers whose limo chatter is sometimes funny, sometimes intriguing, but more often than not an unintentional parody of pretentious art movie talk.
Most people know director Cronenberg's work from his more accessible movies like History of Violence and The Fly, but he's also done some seriously batshit science fiction like Videodrome and eXistenz. He's also occasionally dipped his toe in European-style arthouse cinema with movies like Spider and Crash, and these are what Cosmopolis resembles most. Based on a 2003 novel by postmodern lit diva Don Delillo, Cosmopolis reproduces a lot of the stilted, weird dialogue from the book word-for-word — though it's worth noting that in the book Packer loses all his money by betting on the yen, and in the movie it's the yuan.
The movie's plot arc, if you can ascribe anything like a plot to it at all, involves Packer's disastrous miscalculation of the value of the yuan. As he leans back in his leather chair, fingering computers built into his armrests, Packer opens the doors of his limo to technical consultants, financial experts, and even his "chief of theory." We quickly realize that he's in financial freefall, despite several years of success doing something vague with what he straightfacedly refers to as "cybercapital," or the "intersection of technology and capital."
His money troubles are interrupted only by his marital troubles to an ultra-rich poet who doesn't like having sex with him. And then there's the moment when Packer gets his daily rectal exam while talking to one of his financial advisors (Emily Hampshire) about investments, and then eventually about how hot she is. Anal penetration, cars, and high-minded talk about cybercapitalism? Yep, it's a David Cronenberg movie.
But not a very good one, unfortunately. There are a few good scenes, notably when Packer's chief of theory (the ever-awesome Samantha Morton) talks about how the future, and remarks that even the word "computer" sounds hopelessly old-fashioned at this point. As she sips a drink and serenely talks about theories of the future, the limo is attacked by the "anarchists," whose symbol is a giant rat. They hurl dead rats, spray paint the pristine white exterior of the car and scream slogans, while Morton explains tonelessly that these anarchists want to destroy the future. That future, of course, belongs to endless development and exploitation.
As if to underscore the hopelessness of their cause, the anarchists have hijacked a giant LED billboard so that it reads, "A spectre is haunting the world. The spectre of capitalism." The original 1848 quote from Karl Marx, of course, identifies the "spectre of communism," referring to what was at that time a futuristic political idea that many hoped would end the hideous reign of industrial capital. But the rat-throwers of Manhattan have no such hope. They have only capitalism and more capitalism to look forward to, thanks to people like Packer.
But since this movie is a fairly obvious morality tale, don't expect Packer to get away with it. As his fortune bleeds out, so too does his sanity. Pattinson is admirably creepy and affectless throughout the film, which perfectly suits the character he's playing. Pursued by activists and what his bodyguard calls "a credible threat," he continues to insist that all he wants is a haircut. And maybe some deli food. And some kinky sex with another bodyguard, whom he begs to tase him so that he can "feel something." Yeah, this movie isn't exactly subtle. Craven billionaire is craven!
Still, it's worth watching Cosmopolis if only to watch what happens to Pattinson's hair — and to get a dose of what you might call Cronenberg Unplugged, the acoustic version. All of Cronenberg's favorite obsessions are here, from body horror and class warfare to sexual neurosis and techno-fetishism. One of the very best scenes involves Packer's bodyguard (Kevin Durand), who shows off his voice-activated "smart gun" with the most disturbing smile I've seen in a long time. But by the time we meet Packer's crazed ex-employee (Paul Giamatti) — and the tricked-out gun he carries — you may be tired of hearing the characters expostulate in perfect sentences without contractions rather than talking like normal people.
At some point, nearly every character says, "I do not understand this," instead of "I don't understand that." Feel free to call this kind of alienating dialogue Brechtian, but at least Brecht knew what his allegories were about. I don't think Cronenberg does in Cosmopolis. That's ultimately what's most frustrating about this flick. It's an allegory in search of a meaning that never arrives. I'm sure that sounds promising if you're one of those anti-teleology types. But trust me, it isn't. It's just old-fashioned bad storytelling.