It's better to think of David Cronenberg's 'Cosmopolis' as a dream than a movie. It might not work in cinematic terms -- it's talky, it's stiff, it's aimless -- but it makes perfect sense in hypnagogic ones.
The film, based on a novel by Don DeLillo, has been billed in some corners as a science-fiction story, but that's not quite right. Other than the protagonist's hi-tech limo -- which has touchscreens, swivel chairs, and a hidden pull-out toilet -- nothing in the New York City of 'Cosmpolis' looks all that different from our own. When our hero eats lunch, it's at a generic coffee shop. When he passes people on the street, they're dressed like normal 2012 citizens. Things grow increasingly hostile -- and increasingly weird -- on the other side of his limousine windows, but they never get any more technologically advanced. This is more of a twisted fantasy of the present than a vision of the future.
It concerns a billionaire mega-capitalist named Eric Packer ('Twilight''s Robert Pattinson), who decides to take a detour-laden limo ride across New York City in order to get a haircut. His security adviser (Kevin Durand) warns him against it; the President of the United States is in town, snarling traffic, and they have credible information about a threat against his life. Packer doesn't care; he wants that haircut, even though he doesn't look like he actually needs one.
The gap between wants and needs in a larger economic sense is crucial to 'Cosmopolis'' themes. Safely ensconced within the confines of his fortified limo, Packer can monitor and even participate in the stock market. But the day's not going well; he keeps make bad bets on the yuan, and losing huge sums of money (if you're watching carefully, you'll notice his carefully cultivated uniform of material success -- suit, tie, sunglasses -- slowly falls away throughout the day as well. The perfect hair is the last thing to go). He doesn't seem to care. A series of advisors file in and out of his limo to offer him advice on investments or to muse on the nature of capitalism, though tellingly, we never see anyone but Packer ever get into or out of that car. In true dreamlike fashion, in one second he's alone and in the next someone's with him.
Packer's conversations are somehow both intensely inane and intensely intellectual. Everyone speaks in flat, hushed tones; rarely making eye contact, they stare off into the distance, watching the world crumble outside the limo, reciting lines like "There is a specter haunting the world; the specter of capitalism." and "I have extreme anxieties that my sex organ is shrinking into my body." One can only imagine the shock awaiting unsuspecting Twi-hards who line up for the new RPattz joint only to find him looking bedraggled and listless as he screws his way across Manhattan (revenge against KStew?). The sheer incongruity of the biggest teen idol in the world playing the lead role in an woozily philosophical nightmare of capitalism's decay is one of the film's biggest and best jokes -- not to mention one of its most surreal touches.
'Cosmopolis' feels like a piece with Cronenberg's last film, 'A Dangerous Method,' another film entirely constructed out of lengthy, ponderous conversations between elites insulated from the outside world. This time, there's a bit more of Cronenberg's signature weirdness -- particularly in a finale that sees Packer confronting, in an intellectual sense, his would-be assassin, played by a rambling and raving Paul Giamatti -- and, in its dangling subplots and utterly deranged non-sequiturs, maybe a touch of David Lynch as well.
I must confess that I didn't always follow what Cronenberg was up to in 'Cosmopolis,' but I always enjoyed the ride. The atmosphere is dark and bizarre, and deadpan too -- it's sometimes hard to tell whether the joke is on the capitalists, the anti-capitalists, or the audience. I suspect the film's unconventional structure and tone will turn off a lot of viewers, who may balk at the meandering, talky narrative and the ambiguous and anticlimactic ending.
Personally, I loved the final shot. That's exactly how this dream would end just a second before you woke up.
'Cosmopolis' hits select theaters Friday, August 17.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’