I tried to like Cronenberg's latest venture into relentless cinematic oppressiveness, hoping I would enjoy it the way I enjoyed the director's Eastern Promises and Crash, or at least find it as intriguing as A Dangerous Method. But while I'm a fan of dark films, Cosmopolis exceeded even my tolerance for movies that explore the bleaker aspects of human nature.
Based on a Don DeLillo novel, Cosmopolis has a simple premise: 28-year-old billionaire asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson, sans fangs) takes a limo ride across Manhattan in search of a haircut. While stuck in traffic due to a Presidential visit and violent street protests, Packer's ride turns into something of a nightmare. Protesters attack the limo, and he encounters an odd cast of characters who ruin his world as the day drags into night.
And that's really all there is to Cosmopolis, much of which happens within the ultra-swank confines of Packer's ultra-stretch limo, a none-too-subtle symbol of Wall Street excess.
Cosmopolis is undoubtedly an intelligent and politically relevant film, one that has much to say about the ever-widening gap between the world's haves and have-nots. I respect it for its astute observations about humanity's love of money, a love dissected in great detail via smart (if mostly unrealistic) dialogue between smart (if mostly unrealistic) characters. Cronenberg has created a dismally stylized fantasy world built on the ugliest aspects of our own world, one without even one likeable character or glimmer of optimism, a place that should serve as a dire warning about the concentration of wealth in the hands of a privileged few.
I say should serve as a dire warning because unfortunately, Cosmopolis doesn't make us care enough to heed this warning. The film is so stark, airless, slowly paced and emotionally muted that it lacks the visceral impact of Cronenberg's better efforts. The main problem is that the über-greedy Packer -- who should drive the film's action and message -- may be its least interesting character. Obviously, he's an inherently unsympathetic embodiment of everything we hate about the financial industry. But beyond being unsympathetic, he's also hollow and mostly uninteresting, giving us little incentive to understand him or care about his fate.
The other characters -- an assortment of slightly quirky hangers-on who live to sate Parker's appetites for money, sex, power and attention -- are slightly more entertaining, especially financial wiz Vija Kinsky (Samantha Morton) and toadyish friend Shiner (Jay Baruchel). Most of them appear too briefly to be fully realized, but they do serve as more colorful counterpoints to the soulless Parker.
To be fair, Cosmopolis's dreary world is a visually interesting one, and not without humor. The limo's interior is packed with impressive technology, but there's still room for a more important and less futuristic bit of hardware, namely a urinal. The streets of New York are captivatingly grungy and unwelcoming; they're scary places full of dark backdrops and glowering 99 percenters. And after more than 40 years of filmmaking, Cronenberg still manages to find new ways to make us cringe; in one scene, Parker entertains a guest in the limo while undergoing a prostate exam.
I don't fault Cosmopolis for its intentions; we need more relevant films like it, and I credit Cronenberg for taking on the financial elites. But a film can't rest on its message alone; as captivating cinema, the grim and emotionally distant Cosmopolis is as empty as the soul of its protagonist.