Published on August 15th, 2012 | by Charles H. Meyer1
“Cosmopolis” opens on Friday, August 17 at Landmark Sunshine Cinema.
Running time: 108 minutes; Rated R.
The great Canadian director David Cronenberg made what will surely be remembered as one of the worst decisions of his creative career when he cast Robert Pattinson as the protagonist, Eric Michael Packer, in his latest film, an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel “Cosmopolis.” From the film’s second scene, which takes place inside a sleek, high-tech limousine—the deluxe transportation of choice for Packer, a twenty-something-year-old billionaire whose net worth is derived from high-stakes currency conversion—we find ourselves strapped in for an excruciating ride as we witness Pattinson soullessly, lifelessly reciting DeLillo’s cerebral, postmodern dialogue, the actor’s face a stiff, expressionless mask. A young Keanu Reeves could have conveyed more personality, elicited more pathos in this role—not that Reeves would have made for good casting. Who, then? Almost any of Cronenberg’s previous leading men would have worked. Just imagine one of the following actors when he was still in his mid-twenties: Michael Ironside, James Woods, Christopher Walken, Jeremy Irons, Peter Weller, Willem Dafoe, Ralph Fiennes, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender (or, for that matter, Christian Bale—arguably the most Cronenbergian actor never to have acted in a Cronenberg film). Instead, we get the guy best known as the vampire from “Twilight” playing a deadly dull, blood-sucking capitalist with zero charisma who elicits not an ounce of our sympathy. What in the world could David Cronenberg have possibly seen in Robert Pattinson except for a marketing gimmick to ensure the financing and promotion of an art film virtually guaranteed to lose money at the box office? With his severe, skeletal, sinister facial features and lanky frame, Pattinson bares a strong physical resemblance to the aforementioned Cronenbergian actors. But that’s it. He doesn’t even begin to possess their skill. And as if it weren’t disappointing enough that Cronenberg cast Pattinson in “Cosmopolis,” the director and actor have reportedly begun working together on another film.
It doesn’t help that this rather serious film—which pretends to be a critique of Wall Street but doesn’t pull it off because it never reaches the office and presents a businessman who isn’t convincing as such—opens with a scene between Pattinson and the terribly miscast comic actor Jay Baruchel, needlessly obstructing and ultimately weakening the establishment of the film’s cynical tone. Most of the film takes place inside the limo, with a few brief visits here and there to a couple of diners, an outdoor basketball court, a barber shop, an apartment. Pattinson is in every scene and is supposed to be the planetary body around which all the other actors orbit, but he simply can’t carry the role. In the worst scenes, neither can the various actors he’s paired with, such as Baruchel, Samantha Morton, Sarah Gadon, Emily Hampshire, and Philip Nozuka. In these scenes, the actors give flat, dead-on-arrival readings of DeLillo’s complex language, failing to lift it up from the page, making us strain to listen to so many unfelt, uninspired utterances that we would probably be better off reading ourselves (although the critical consensus seems to be that “Cosmopolis” is one of DeLillo’s worst novels, so maybe even reading it ourselves would be inadvisable, and maybe that’s partly why the novel’s dialogue has translated so poorly to the screen). Fortunately, however, Juliette Binoche, Mathieu Amalric, and Paul Giamatti give exceptional performances, breathing much-needed life into DeLillo’s words and breathlessly stealing their scenes with Pattinson. Binoche arrives in the film riding Pattinson cowgirl-style, her face obscured by her long, dark hair. Only after they finish the deed and she slides off do we see her face. And as she delivers her lines, she slithers around the limo like a snake. She’s thrilling to watch, and she appears early enough in the film to give us hope that we might be going somewhere interesting. But we’re stuck with Pattinson for the whole trip, and his presence basically ruins every scene. Later in the film, a nearly unrecognizable Amalric plays a mad, pie-throwing bum of some sort who gets into a brief scuffle with Packer outside of the limo. As with Binoche, it’s Amalric’s wild energy, his enlivening of the dry, literary script—which Cronenberg himself adapted from the novel in a breezy six days (and on the seventh day, did he rest?)—that makes the film suddenly interesting. But by far the greatest performance is by Paul Giamatti and occurs in the final fifteen minutes or so. Giamatti plays Benno Levin, a former employee of Packer’s currency conversion operation who is now hell-bent on killing him. Firing down into the street at him from high up in his post-apocalyptic-looking mess of an apartment, Levin maniacally yells at Packer, who responds by racing up to the apartment and defending himself, firing back at Levin and demanding to know who he is and why he’s trying to kill him. (Like Binoche and Amalric, Giamatti makes a surprising star entrance because we can’t at first tell who he is.) As Giamatti pointed out in the press conference three months ago at Cannes, Levin is the only sympathetic character in the entire film. He’s also the only character who seems to have any soul to speak of, the only character we can find it in ourselves to care about. As he demonstrates his virtuosic talent, skating passionate thespian figure-eights around the woefully talentless Pattinson, the film finally starts to feel watchable. And as Levin holds his gun against the back of Packer’s head, it is Levin with whom we sympathize. “Just shoot him already,” I kept thinking. “Where were you at the beginning of the film when we hadn’t already suffered through an hour and a half with this guy?”