“My prostate is asymmetrical.”
A few years ago, I was reading Don DeLillo’s Libra, a speculative novel about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and I remarked to a literary critic that none of DeLillo’s characters spoke like recognizable people, and they all spoke alike in their staccato pretentiousness. But there was one exception: Oswald’s wife, Marina, had brilliantly authentic monologues about her life with Lee. And the critic told me that Marina sounded so real because DeLillo had simply taken her Warren Commission testimony and pasted it in his narrative. DeLillo, whatever his philosophical acuity and structural innovation, doesn’t write believable characters; they’re all simply puppets for his ideas and word play. And that word play can be seductive. David Cronenberg, in adapting DeLillo’s 2003 novel Cosmopolis, was clearly taken in by the language, reproducing DeLillo’s dialogue almost word for word. And that means that nothing that the characters say is believable as a human utterance. This is the main reason – but not the only one – that Cosmopolis is such a weird, discomfiting, ultimately entrancing cinematic experience.
The story is a day in the life of Eric Packer, a 28-year-old billionaire asset manager. On this day all Eric wants to do is have his limo drive him across Manhattan to get a haircut, but a great deal of obstacles get in the way. The president is in town, snarling traffic. And then a massive anti-capitalist anarchist protest engulfs the city. This is followed by a funeral procession for Eric’s favorite Sufi rapper. On the trek, various people visit Eric in his limo. There are several employees, from his security chief (Jay Baruchel) to one of his financial advisers (Jane Melman), who explains how his decisions regarding the Chinese Yuan are ruining his company while a doctor gives him a physical. His company’s chief theorist (Samantha Morton) explains the historical moment to him. He has sex with Juliet Binoche. In a hotel, he has sex with one of his security guards. And at several points during the day, Eric encounters his icy new wife (Sarah Gadon), a blond poet who refuses to have sex with him. Meanwhile, Eric’s security team continuously warns him that his life is in danger.
These plot points are not inherently odd, and one can imagine any of them in a typical movie about Wall Street machinations or rich people in love, lust, or suffering from ennui. But Cronenberg, following DeLillo’s lead, simply uses the storyline as a cover for commentary on everything from capitalism, ambition, and conspicuous consumption to paranoia, mortality, and the search for meaning in a meaningless world. Within the commentary, there are numerous moments of verbal profundity that usually only occur in literary novels or avant-garde plays. In film, or at least in popular American film, the imagery usually does much of that work, so it is surprising to see a movie star like Robert Pattinson say things like “Talent is more erotic when it’s wasted” or to hear Samantha Morton say “The more visionary the idea, the more people it leaves behind.” And it’s hard to figure out what we’re meant to get from Pattinson telling Paul Giamatti, “My prostate is asymmetrical,” Giamatti responding, “So is mine,” Pattinson asking, “What does it mean?” and Giammti replying, “Nothing. It means nothing.”
I think I was supposed to laugh a great deal more than I did. But it was hard to tell which of the stilted, unnatural line readings were meant to be profound or absurd, profoundly absurd, or absurdly profound. I’m pretty sure I was right to laugh when Eric gets a lengthy prostate exam while discussing currency rates with his employee, but I wasn’t sure if I was right to laugh when Eric’s limo is attacked by anarchists wielding giant rat puppets. Though I do now know that Pattinson is not a joke. As odd as the movie was, the performance of the man who is only known for playing a brooding vampire in the terrible Twilight movies is impressive. The center of every scene, he is commanding, charismatic, and as weirdly cererbral as Cronenberg’s film. Playing someone only slightly more human than a vampire, he fits right in.
Written and Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Robert Pattinson, Sarah Gadon, and Paul Giamatti
At Landmark Hillcrest