“Do you ever get the feeling that you don’t know what’s going on?” a character asks during David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis (2012). Why, yes, I do. In fact, I’m feeling it right now. Confusion during a movie is not in itself a negative thing. The more dangerous question is, “Do you ever get the feeling that you don’t know what’s going on and that you don’t care to try to find out?” That’s a killer, and that feeling comes during Cosmopolis too.
Oh, to be in on the joke, to know why the people in this movie say what they say and act as they act, to know the meaning of every muddy, bewildering phrase, to understand the purpose of every dry, wooden delivery? Oh, to be one of the few aware of what is going on? What a fun club that must be. Unfortunately, that’s an incredibly exclusive club, one whose members must include Cronenberg as the writer and director, perhaps Don DeLillo who wrote the novel on which it was based, and not too many others. The actors don’t seem to have much insight or perhaps they’re being directed to seem as obscure as possible.
I don’t need to be spoon-fed the plot, I don’t mind a little thinking when I sit in the cinema, nor am I put off by ambiguous movies that don’t have answers. Movies aren’t puzzles; they aren’t to be solved, but when a movie is made that feels like playing a game with a child that is making up the rules as he goes along, changing the rules during play, and cheating on top of that, it’s a little prohibitive.
What’s it about? Your guess is as good as mine and only one of us is known to have seen it. Robert Pattinson plays Eric, a billionaire businessman who is having a bad day. I think. He mentions that he’s losing millions of dollars by the minute, but he doesn’t seem to be bothered too badly by it. The only thing he seems to be insistent upon throughout the movie is getting his hair cut and having sex with his new wife (Sarah Gadon), and the way I know he’s interested is because when he talks about those two thing he raises his eyebrows a little bit and talks slightly less like a somnambulist. Whether he needs to have his hair cut is debatable, but his sexual life is certainly not dependent on his bride. Throughout the movie he makes love with various women, the list of which includes Juliette Binoche and Patricia McKenzie, though this doesn’t seem to excite him any more than having a medical exam, which I know because Cosmopolis,gratefully, has Eric have his prostate examined in his limo so that we can compare.
Eric wanders the city, learning about his day’s losses, coming to and drifting away from his wife, finding new conquests and being updated by his security staff of the alarming acceleration of a plot on his life. None of this gets much of a rise out of him; he accepts the draining of funds, the marital rebuffs and the encroaching reminders of his mortality with a stone face, though he does sort of laugh when someone tells him his favorite sport as a child was rugby. He finds that funny. Also, he does seem to be upset when he learns of the death of a Somali rapper. “But his music plays in one of my elevators,” he offers as a reason that he should not be dead. Oh, and Eric screams a little when he deliberately shoots his own hand.
So, what’s being said here? There’s a lot about capitalism and its effects on humanity; perhaps Eric is the personification of corporate greed, mindlessly moving forward, taking what he wants and coldly dismissing what he doesn’t. There’s even more talk about Eric’s penchant for self-destruction; maybe he’s a Bressonian attempt to distill humanity’s obsession with its own demise. What’s for sure is that Eric is a schmuck and that 100 minutes in his limo was too much for me.
What it’s about is just one part of the equation. More important, how is it about it? The movie is handsomely mounted and photographed, edited and scored on the level of a thriller but without the thrills. There are times, particularly during a riot that no one seems to pay much mind to, when we just wish the camera would leave these strange robots and that we’d be brought into a world that has passion, even if it’s for violence. This is an ugly movie, which doesn’t by itself damn it to mediocrity, but combined with its unlikable characters there’s simply too much to overcome. What’s worse, Cosmopolis gives the impression that it has stumbled upon some great truth and that it has discovered a new way of disseminating it, when it actually feels like a freshman’s first draft for a play in a fringe festival. It’s so sure that it is profound or shocking but it fails to be either. “We’re people in the world,” Eric says, like he has the patent on insight. “We’re meant to eat and talk.” Enlightening.
I enjoy ambition in movies. I’d rather see a movie reach for the stars and barely get out of the atmosphere than watch a movie jump over a blade of grass and expect high praise. I don’t think Cosmopolis is actually all that ambitious. Cronenberg is capable of creating sterling movies, and coldness is often at the center of them. Among others, he has tried to be objective about sexuality in last year’s A Dangerous Method and tried to remain neutral about violence inEastern Promises (2007), but in both of those cases, humanity and passion were able to seep their way in. Not the case here.