Tuesday, July 31, 2012

New Release Review: Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012)

Cosmopolis is the new film from veteran Canadian director David Cronenberg (The Fly, Crash). Having only directed Spider, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises over an 11-year stretch between 1999 and 2010, Cronenberg’s very disappointing A Dangerous Method, the story about the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, the masters of psychoanalysis, hit cinemas earlier in the year. He has followed it up very promptly with an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, Cosmopolis. Premiering at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival where it competed for the Palme d’Or, it received very mixed reviews.


This is completely understandable because this brooding, dialogue-heavy picture will appeal to very few people and makes itself near impossible to recommend to an audience unacquainted with the novel. If one is an admirer of DeLillo’s novel then this might be satisfying, but for this reviewer it failed to work as a film at all. I believe it is a near word-for-word adaptation, but it contains far more monotone exposition than is necessary to get the point across.

It is hardly riveting and is a confounding, boring and at times frustrating work, full of smug musings about the stench of capitalism and the decay of urban America, and laden with pretentious self-importance. Almost every sequence has the agenda of trying to tell the audience something or at least convince them that the idea being presented is important. It’s like an essay on screen. It is one of the weaker films I have seen not only from Cronenberg, but also of the year to date.

The premise of the film is the journey of 28-year-old billionaire asset manager, Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), as he rides slowly across Manhattan in his stretch limousine/office to his preferred barber to get a spontaneous haircut. As a result of traffic jams caused by anti-capitalist street protesters, a visit from the president of the United States and the funeral of Eric's favourite musician, Eric runs into a series of obstacles that tear his world of privilege and excess apart.


A host of characters (and cameos from high profile stars in thankless support) pop up along the way. He has several chance encounters with his new wife (Sarah Gadon), usually over a meal. She refuses his requests for sex, claiming she has to work, and as a result he has passionless sex with an ex (Juliette Binoche) and a member of his security team (Patricia McKenzie). His driver and head of security (Kevin Durand) continually warns him that his life is in danger, and advises him not to leave the limo and reconsider his choice of barber. Eric has his daily medical checkup, learns that his prostate is asymmetrical, loses incredible amounts of money for his clients after a disastrous trade, and starts down a self-destructive path culminating in a visit to an unstable former employee (Paul Giamatti). In short, there was potential – and it may be gripping, intellectually stimulating and thought provoking in the novel – but here these events are simply not interesting.

I admire Cronenberg’s decision to cast Robert Pattinson in this role because he does look the part as a handsome and well-groomed 28-year-old, but he has little more to do than look steely and smug and discuss the state of the world with his limo companions in a bored and disinterested fashion. There are a couple of impressive cameos – Matthieu Amalric and Paul Giamatti in particular – who gave the film some life, but most of the performances are forgettable. Not even bursts of brutal violence and intense sex arouse emotion or provoke invested interest. This is a film that confused and bored me, and despite trying hard to remain attentive to the narrative and process this relentless spurt of information and ideas, my interest all-but evaporated.

Not even Cronenberg’s clinical and fastidious style - the very direct cutting between characters during dialogue, the odd-angled close-ups, the sleek steadycam tracking shots and several lengthy unbroken exchanges – could energize the film or offer up something to take away. An extraordinary final shot came about far too late. Much like Eric’s gross excess of wealth, Cronenberg seems to have incorporated a service-less excess of style that has little-to-no impact on the film’s dull, lifeless tone.


What I did like about the film was the juxtaposition between the sleek, shiny, high-tech and spacious interior of his limousine (his safe haven) and the chaos and destruction going on around him, including the exterior of the limousine (covered in graffiti and beaten). Every time Eric steps out of the limo, he is involved in an incident of some sort and becomes increasingly unkempt (his wife recognizes the loss of his tie and suit jacket) as he begins to abandon his life of excess and luxury and seek out something more. After starting the film impeccably groomed and suited he has pie remnants glued to his face and his hair half cut for the final third. Having lost his primary weapon (his money), he now carries an acquired pistol around. When one expects the film to raise the stakes and deliver some surprises, it disappointingly concedes to further drivel.

At one point in the film, a character questions where all of the white limousines disappear to of a night. I was at that moment reminded of another soon-to-be released film where the protagonist spends a majority of the film in the back of a limo. That film is Holy Motors, which I have not stopped thinking about and comes highly recommended. I really wish I had been watching that film, because Cosmopolis is a dud and Cronenberg, usually so consistent, has made two in a row.

My Rating: ★1/2 

16 comments:

  1. I sort of expected as much from the combination of DeLillo and Pattinson. Casting him works like a big red flag that the director has lost all sense and you shouldn't expect a thing.

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    1. I honestly don't think Pattinson is the issue with this film. He is fine. Very solid and well-cast. I think this is a novel that should have been left unadapted, because it has been transformed into a gruelling and frustrating experience, and though it presents some interesting ideas and Cronenberg establishes a surreal and unpleasant world, it is never engaging as a film. At all.

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  2. OK, between this and Corey's reaction towards the film. I think I'll wait for the film to come out on DVD.

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    1. Yeah I read about Corey's situation and I completely understand why. I never had the urge to leave - but I did not enjoy myself at all.

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  3. It's disappointing to hear this film isn't as accessible as Cronenberg's previous couple of films - I thoroughly loved both History of Violence and Eastern Promises (haven't seen A Dangerous Method yet) - but I still think I'm going to check this out. Talky films need to be handled with care generally, I think, because unless the dialogue is razor-sharp the audience will be lost - and a direct book-to-screen script is a precarious investment for the film regardless.

    Great review, Andy, I'll approach this film with requisite caution.

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    1. Yeah it is certainly not as accessible as the two Cronenberg films you mentioned.

      Some of the dialogue is razor-sharp, but the large chunks of idea/exposition don't propel the story but are always trying to tell the audience something. That's where I got lost. A lot of the chatter is dull and economics-related, and its presence doesn't build the story. Be cautious, but if you've had your heart set on seeing the film definitely give it a shot.

      Thanks Rodney.

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  4. I would go see this just for the seemingly uncomfortable cinematography and to decide if 'R. Patts' can be anything other than a disenchanted pretentious teenager/vampire.
    Interesting review.

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    1. It is a claustrophobic drama - because of the fact that most of the film takes place within a confined space, and features some very bizarre photographic choices - and Pattinson is decent, so you may really like this film.

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  5. Excellent review Andy. I've been wondering about this one. I find Cronenberg a bit hit and miss but I think I'll still check this one out.

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    1. Thanks a lot. I look forward to your thoughts. Fingers crossed you like it more than I. I really like Cronenberg, but I have not enjoyed Dead Ringers and A Dangerous Method prior to this, so his resume isn't perfect for me.

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  6. As you know, I completely disagree with you on this one, Andy. Pattinson was such inspired casting, he had so much to work with, and is now in one of my favourite performances of the year.

    Like you said though, it doesn't work as a film at all - I completely agree with this - and I think that's why I took to it so much. The dialgoue, as I found out that Cronenberg himself pointed out before I knew he'd mentioned it, is very Pinter-like, and that's where Cosmopolis strives most - as a theatrical film, not a film. Even the shots and very few sets are made for theatre.

    Theatre lovers will LOVE this film, but people used to film I think will struggle trying to grapple with it.

    It may seem out of the box for most people, but, to date, this is my favourite film of the year full of many, many disappointments (Promethues, The Dark Knight Rises, etc.)

    I do wish you could have seen what I saw in this film, but hey, I guess you win some you lose some!

    Nicely written review, even though I disagree with your overall opinion of the film.

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    1. Thanks for reading and for your comment Cherokee. I really like what you say about the film in a theatrical capacity. That makes sense to me, and I have even considered sitting through it again with that reading in mind.

      I had to call it how I saw it, but I don;t know if I am game to give it another go.

      I also understand what you say about it not working as a film, and being receptive to that. I am all for filmmakers breaking down conventions, and defying everything we know about cinema, but I also like those films to be engaging. I was in a stupor, and not even during the bursts of sex and violence did I flinch or get emotive. It was a lifeless experience, and for me, as a viewer who likes to feel the emotion and get into the film, that's a feeling I don't regard with favor.

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  7. You're right that the film received mixed reviews. I gave it five stars if I remember correctly. I thought it was excellent. I agree with the comment above about seeing the film in different ways, or perhaps seeing different things in it but can totally understand why some people would dislkie it as well. In a way I think that's one of its strengths. It is able to divide people so easily.

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    1. Fair point. I'm really glad you liked it. I usually come out favouring some of those obscure films that divide audiences - Tree of Life, We Need to Talk About Kevin etc. - but this year I have really disliked some films. In addition to Cosmopolis, I also have not liked Wuthering Heights, Rampart and Alps, which have all been well-received by most critics. I usually find something to admire or engage me in films, but with Cosmopolis there was almost nothing. Very disappointing.

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  8. Really glad we disliked this one equally. I mean, my God, this was just so bad and boring and pointless. Easily the worst Cronenberg film I've ever seen. Yikes.

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    1. As I said on Twitter, I am a little relieved to hear this. I have been hearing a lot of positive responses recently. I wondered if I had seen the same film, or whether I should watch it again. As you're a Cronenberg fan, to learn you are disappointed is not a surprise, but confirms that this is a tiny niche film. A film impossible to recommend.

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