It helps to let yourself get lost in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, which adapts Don Delillo's novel and clings hard to the inscrutable, arcane language, which very deliberately keeps the audience at arm's length. Of course, our hero Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) is used to holding the world at arm's length himself, making a fortune in buying and trading money on the kinds of international markets that make the world run by nobody understand. Ensconced in his hermetically sealed limo (it's as quiet as recording studio inside) and making his way across midtown Manhattan to get a haircut, Eric keeps getting interrupted by the intrusions of the real world, in ways that are confusing, terrifying, gross, and occasionally very violent-- though you'll never really know which one's coming next.
Cosmopolis is about the collapse of an empire, of Eric's financial spoils taking a hit thanks to one bad bet, but also the general fabric of society falling apart, in a way very familiar after years of recession and economic blight. Delillo's novel was written in 2003, but Cronenberg-- writing his own script for the first time since eXistenZ-- cleverly updates the story for these Occupy Wall Street times, setting up Eric as a one-percenter who is used to controlling the universe, and is totally unprepared for that power to erode. What happens to him on this eventful day can be hard to follow-- seriously, that tricky language is a major hurdle-- and come out of nowhere even when you're following along, but the shocks and twists and even laughs of Cosmopolis have their own out-there power, even when it's impossible to describe how it gets there.
When Cronenberg and Pattinson have said in publicity ops that the movie is really just about a man getting a haircut, they're not being glib-- that's the main narrative drive of the film, at least until Eric finally meets up with the shaggy man (Paul Giamatti) who's been trying to kill him, in the electrifying final scene. En route to that haircut, though, Eric seems to encounter practically everyone, from a woman (Juliette Binoche) brought into the limo for sex to two more women (Samantha Morton and Emily Hampshire) with cryptic business advice to--surprise!-- his new wife (Sarah Gadon), a rich girl so preserved in her kept-up beauty that she doesn't even eat when she and Eric meet in diners. He has long conversations with all of them, all of them perversely fascinating, whether for the stilted language or theoretically pronouncements or, in one supremely memorable case, a prostate exam happening during a conversation about the company's finances.
Pattinson, capable of an unnerving stillness and a sublimely blank face, is completely in step with Cronenberg's tone-- you can see why the two are eager to work together again. But he's also no help in working your way through the murk of this narrative, as polished and steely as the limousine itself. Cosmopolis is a puzzler, a movie that challenges you to understand it knowing fully well you never will. But it contains enough mordant humor, enough pops of sex and violence, and enough rich performances to make all that head-scratching worth it-- though it might not feel that way until you've had a few days to let it all filter through your brain. We'll see many more cinematic takes on the recession and Occupy Wall Street and the capitalist collapse, but probably none as wry and surprising as this one.
Reviewed By: Katey Rich