A version of this review appeared in The Age, August 4, 2012.
Robert Pattinson glides through the day in a limousine with tinted windows, the darkly gleaming interior like an obsidian starship built to traverse the deep space of Manhattan. Sunglasses turn his face into an arrangement of lines and planes, emphasising his square jaw, his twitching lips, his undeniably even teeth.
We can all regret Stanley Kubrick didn't survive to make a film with Pattinson – perfect casting, like Ryan O'Neal and Tom Cruise before him, as a puppet striving to become a real boy. For a consolation prize, it's fair enough Pattinson should star as the anti-hero of a novel by Don DeLillo; after all, DeLillo doesn't exactly write about human beings, and Pattinson has shown little aptitude for playing them.
Faithfully transposed by David Cronenberg in this movie adaptation, the plot of DeLillo's 2003 novel Cosmopolis is blatantly flimsy, absurd and symbolic. Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) a fabulously wealthy young asset manager, sets out across town to get a haircut. Along the way, he stops off for meals, undergoes a medical examination, engages in Socratic dialogue with a revolving-door cast of functionaries, and has sex with a couple of women (though not his wife). As the day passes, omens point to catastrophe, with some kind of financial upheaval involving the yuan, and reports of an assassination threat.
It is hard to get too invested in any of this. In fact, the film is a fiasco that might well dismay even Cronenberg's most ardent fans – stiff, slow, and dependent on a kind of numb glamour that seems left over from the 1980s. DeLillo's novel has been distilled by the director into a script composed of opaque babble, spat out by Pattinson and others with a hardboiled disregard for meaning. Juliette Binoche livens things up for five minutes as one of Eric's lovers, tossing herself around bodily in the back of the limo, all rampant physical and intellectual curiosity in the face of Pattinson's would-be deadpan cool. In a cameo as a clownish anarchist, Mathieu Amalric manages to break the monotonous rhythm of DeLillo's prose – which is more than you can say for poor Samantha Morton, searching for an emotional through-line as if she were doing Shakespeare.
Cosmopolis is vastly, audaciously silly, which could be said of most Cronenberg films: the difference lies in the pompous, worshipful attitude which mutes most of the presumably intentional humour. The worship is not just of DeLillo's text, but the idea of the banker as mental superman, an innately dubious concept which has taken some further hits since 2003. There's a whiff of highbrow fantasy about Eric, a self-made legend who grew up in a working-class neighbourhood but claims a personal fortune in the “tens of billions” (making him richer than Mark Zuckerberg, or any real-world American under 50). Who can believe in a businessman who spends his days taunting his underlings like Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success, whose musical tastes range from Satie to hip-hop, who has his limousine sound-proofed with cork in emulation of Proust? Clearly Eric isn't meant to be taken literally; the trouble is that he never seems remotely apt as a symbol of capitalist power.
Then again, perhaps the movie isn't really a statement about capitalism: perhaps it isn't a statement at all. When Cronenberg sets the opening and closing credits against an abstract painting, he could be telling us Cosmopolis is intended as a “pure” artwork, referring only to itself. If he succeeds to any degree, it's on this abstract level: what remains memorable is the feeling of sculptural immobility induced by wide-angle lenses, by alternations between the same fixed camera set-ups, by language falling on dead air. Deep in the blurry distance, extras scurry back and forth; in the foreground there's nothing but Pattinson's smooth white head, droning on unintelligibly, trying to hold itself very still and not quite succeeding.