“A specter is haunting Europe,” begins Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto. David Cronenberg ups the ante and announces “a specter is haunting the world!”
The proclamation comes a few times in his quite literal adaptation of Don DeLillo's surreal novel “Cosmopolis,” but none more memorable than from a pair of rat-hurling dissidents at a greasy spoon diner.
They don't realize it, but the guy munching tuna on pumpernickel nearby is actually one of modernity's powerful (and possibly out of control) puppet masters holding the strings of the world's economy. He's played, quite wonderfully I might add, by Robert Pattinson, and “Cosmopolis” offers in fine detail his dreamlike journey across Manhattan to get a haircut.
The bulk of “Cosmopolis” is set in Pattinson's throne room, the fortified interior of a fantastically high-tech limousine. From his mobile perch, he can move around fortunes, receive visits from his staff, get his prostate examined and, as it happens, witness a societal breakdown for which is largely responsible. “Cosmopolis” is a big, slow moving luxury vehicle of symbolism, but its self-aware quality, stylistic dread and sharp-as-all-hell humor are the perfect (and perhaps only) way an enormous parable like this could work for a modern, intelligent audience.
There's hardly a whiff of realism in the film, much of which has the tone of a filmed play. Pattinson's scene partners (like his art dealer, security squad or “corporate chief of theory”) simply just appear, engage in some tick-tock dialogue, then recede back into the ether of the film's stylized urban setting. Each of these scenes is more marvelous, and slightly ridiculous, than the last.
“Cosmopolis'” trump card is a remarkable, dead-pan humor. As a critic, I oftentimes scribble a quote when a particularly witty, insightful line of dialogue pops up. I wasn't ten minutes in to “Cosmopolis” when I put down my pen; I realized I'd essentially been taking dictation.
Every utterance in Cronenberg's script (lifted in enormous chunks directly from DeLillo) has an elan sprung from a mix of sadness and sophistication.
“I was never good at geography and I learn things by asking [taxi] drivers where they come from.”
“They come from horror and despair.”
That's from an exchange Pattinson's character has with his new wife, a billionaire heiress with whom he has no physical relationship, but bumps into periodically on his crosstown odyssey. From the outset, he's told that it isn't the right day to make this trek. The president is in town, a rap star's having a funeral procession and there's chatter of a “credible threat.” Despite “entire streets deleted off the map,” the order is given, “we need a haircut.”
Pattinson is more than just a haircut here. Initially, he seems as smug as any man whose building has different elevators depending on his mood. As his journey moves on, and his intangible deals on international currency commence to breed ruin, he sheds more of his facade, until a Noo Yawk accent emerges and he ends up face to face with his destiny.
Pattinson's Colonel Kurtz is a chewed-up former employee played by Paul Giamatti, and their showdown is very much intended to rival Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando's from “Apocalypse Now.” This film, however, is one that trades more in anarchic pies to the face than napalm attacks on villages.
“Cosmopolis” is Cronenberg's best film since “eXistenZ” and further viewings may place it higher than that. Rare is it that a movie can anger up the blood, keep you laughing and engage the more artistic quarters of the mind. There's also the added benefit of the casting coup, and wondering how the unwashed masses who flock to Pattinson's sparkly vampire films will respond to this complex work. That the film's publicity department was able to score an “opening bell opp” at the New York Stock Exchange is a moment of such high irony that they ought to include pictures of the event on the back of the Blu-ray.