Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Random Movie Report: Cosmopolis

Cosmopolis poster and Amazon link

You can count on David Cronenberg to deliver a very pleasant kind of discomfort. There's a frission underlying just about every film he's made, a sense of things that are not right and will probably never be right, but it's as alluring as it is disturbing- it's tempting to see what happens. Cosmopolis has its flaws but it manages a wonderful feeling that everything is about to spin out of control, and in its deliberate pacing and stubborn lack of realism it ranks with the filmmaker's adaptations of Naked Lunch and Crash (the good version).

Robert Pattinson, he of the sparkling undead craze, plays Wall Street billionaire Eric Packer, who has decided he wants a haircut, and he wants it from a place on the other side of Manhattan. Normally do-able, but between the President visiting town and a protest march, it looks like a long trek. But Packer has a high-tech limousine waiting to ferry him, complete with enough computing power to run the business from the backseat, which is important because his company is making a big bet against Chinese currency. It's bound to fall with various market pressures, but it isn't, and Packer risks losing his shirt, but he keeps calm- eerily so, even as he rides through increasingly chaotic and dangerous situations, including a threat on his life. The movie follows him through every leg of the journey, and as Packer's situation worsens, he doesn't seem to mind.

We have the problem of an inherently unsympathetic protagonist. Packer is the very picture of yuppie vulture scum, and no attempt is made to give him any really redeeming factors. A sympathetic protagonist is not as necessary as we like to think, but we start out at a distance as we wonder why, particularly, we should care what happens to him. But slowly we see how precarious his situation is, and though part of the allure is seeing a big man potentially take a fall, we also start to wonder what's going on inside his head. He's very cool and collected and his motivations are often hard to read, and the film adds to the emotional distance by having nearly everyone speak in unnaturally intellectual phrasing.

What the film lacks in intimacy, though, it makes up for in a palpable atmosphere of discomfort and uncertainty. It starts subtly, but by the time Packer speaks with a theory specialist played by Samantha Morton about abstract concepts of technology and economy while a full-scale anti-capitalist riot rages on around them, it's clear that things are only going to get worse and that the hermetic control Packer seeks is under constant siege. The familiar cool technological atmosphere of Cronenberg's films always has chaos waiting to erupt under the surface, and it's this tension that provides the film's driving force even as it denies us other connections.

It's hard to tell from this film whether Robert Pattinson is truly a good actor underneath the mask of Edward Cullen or if he's just really nicely cast to type as a dead-eyed urbanite who has become bored with life. Whatever, it works. Kevin Durand is nicely memorable as Packer's chief of security, and the great Paul Giamatti makes a fine appearance in the film's climactic scenes, even if they drag a little after the buildup. Sarah Gadon plays Packer's wife, an intellectual heiress who promises to keep him above water financially no matter what happens, and while she's not bad their scenes together are probably the film's weakest, simply because it's easy to see things just aren't working out between them at all. That's the point, but it didn't need multiple scenes to convey.

There are enough problems with Cosmopolis that I hesitate to rank it too highly, but at the same time there's a lot going on underneath the hood. I'm forced into the same position I was several years ago by Terry Gilliam's Tideland; I'm not sure how much of the film is great, how much I get because I'm on the filmmaker's wavelength already, and how much I'm just taken aback by how audaciously off-putting it is. But if I have to simplify enough for a grade, Cosmopolis clearly means to be a cold but intense experience and at that it succeeds. It says a lot about the chaotic state of current society without being too focused on tearing down the establishment, and if it seems a little schematic at times it still evokes a feeling of dread. So thumbs up, it's got a nice beat, but you may not want to dance to it.

Based on the novel by Don DeLillo
Written and Directed by David Cronenberg

Grade: A-

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