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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Cosmopolis



COSMOPOLIS (Three Stars)

U. S.: David Cronenberg, 2012

What are the lives of the One Percent like? Are they sexy and hedonistic? Indulgent and selfish? Brilliant and complex? Banal and half-witted? Are the billionaires among us only a bunch of dauntless job-creators plagued by class warfare and government regulations? Or does their number include freeloaders living off trust funds, grave dancing on dying companies, and buying and selling politicians? Do they look like Robert Pattinson, or like the Siegel family in The Queen of Versailles? Would we be the same way if we were them, if we had theirs, if the one percent were the ninety-nine?

Cosmopolis, adapted by David Cronenberg from the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo,  suggests a  bit of all of the above. But most cogently and completely, Cronenberg’s movie suggests that if we were in the uppermost echelon, it might be a nightmare –n a deserved one. If we were young billionaire asset managers like Eric Packer, played by Pattinson, we could set out one morning, in a white stretch limousine with our driver, lounge lazily in a luxurious back seat area (all black and blue and silver-chrome trim), relaxing in a limo seat that resembles a small room, and set out, in the middle of a vast midtown Manhattan traffic jam (worsened by the presence of a presidential motorcade, the funeral of a beloved rap star and Occupy-style riots in the street), to get a haircut from our favorite barber.


Traffic is heavy, so it takes a while. (Doesn’t this guy have a helicopter?) And along the way, so slow is the limo’s progress, we have time for numerous encounters — sexual, business and even medical — involving an art dealer/lover (Juliette Binoche), financial advisors (Jay Baruchel and Emily Hampshire), our cynical driver Torval (Kevin Durand) doctors, a rebellious cream-pie thrower (Mathieu Amalric),  and even a billionaire wife, Elisa (Sarah Gadon), who keeps popping up for meals along the route. All the while this is happening, we are being wiped out financially, losing millions, billions, zillions  in a deal involving the Chinese currency, the yuan. And, somewhere along the way, an assassin lurks, and also Paul Giamatti as an old Packer employee Benno Levin — or maybe they’re one and the same.

Thus goes the day for the wealthiest 1%, at least in Cosmopolis — a defiantly literary, unabashedly arty, unashamedly political  and often stunningly painterly movie, trying strenuously to say something important, and confront a world that in movies, is usually just used as a backdrop for another action or crime or sex plot. (I guess, in a way it is here, too.) Here, it’s used for a serious saga of the moneyed class, with Packer as a portray of the Financier as a Young Man, in a desperate crisis, surrounded by the denizens of Wall Street and beyond. As such, it has received some pretty nasty reviews — and some kind ones, some deserved, some not.

But it’s not as if we were deluged with movies like this, up to out necks in American films that try to examine or comment on (or satirize) the real problems of the real world. It’s not as if filmmakers were lining up around the block frantically trying to outbid each other on the next DeLillo novel.  No one need worry that the movie industry will soon fall into the hands of lots of people who want to make films out of nothing but Roberto Bolano or William T. Vollmann or Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Martin Amis or Jonathan Franzen novels. Conquered by artsy job creators anxious to further class warfare though their movies, although “class warfare,” by now, has simply become a cliché Commie/bogeyman word for use by lazy Republicans, who probably wouldn’t know class warfare from a knish with hot mustard.

Why did Cosmopolis, arty and thoughtful and ambitious to a fault, get some critical tongue-lashing at the Cannes Film Festival?  I didn’t read the objections. But it’s a difficult film (Cronenberg wrote the adaptation) and a fairly unpleasant one. It’s a movie that traps us in interiors and long takes (probably mostly for budgetary reasons), a movie that badly needs to be ventilated. Translation: It needs to have a few more outdoor scenes of some kind or Manhattan exteriors. Just a few. So we don’t feel we’re trapped on sets.

There is no real artistic reason for this claustrophobic imprisonment in the Cosmopolis limo and a few midtown spots — just a matter, I’m sure, of insufficient budget for more of an exterior location shoot. The best part of Cosmopolis is the last 20 minutes or so, when Packer goes outside (on what may be a set) for a while, gets shot at, and then joins Giamatti’s Levin for a tense closing scene: a psychological duel in Levin‘s digs. Giamatti is brilliant and he gives this confrontation burning presence and an edge. But that’s not the only reason the scene is so good. Pattinson rises to the occasion too, and the clash brings out the best in both of them.

Pattinson has presence of course, though most of  the time he doesn’t quite show the intellectual heft you’d expect in the alleged financial genius he’s playing. (Maybe that’s the point.) But he does have those looks and that camera-catching quality,  and there are a lot of good actors for him to react to inside the limousine (especially Binoche, Durand, Morton and Amalric.) The movie is an actors show, but it doesn’t get the actor it needs to dominate the show, until Giamatti shows up at the end.

Packer is more a Leonardo DiCaprio sort of role, or maybe Christian Bale, or Colin Farrell, who was originally cast in the part. There’s a certain narcissistic sense of entitlement that Pattinson brings to Packer (and of course, his star credentials insure a budget), and it makes for some compelling moments. But it’s not until the Levin scene starts, that the movie really takes off.

David Cronenberg started out as  a low-budget Canadian horror movie maker, who gave his movies (Rabid, They Came from Within) surprising psychological and sociological depth. Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringers, three great horror films, show him at his peak. Since Naked Lunch though, he’s been  a maker of more literary art films (like Crash, from J. G. Ballard), with strong casts and lots to say and trips to Cannes, though he’s had to pay for it with charges of pretentiousness and diminished returns. (Crash needed more ventilation too.)

Cronenberg, the master of anatomical horror, tends to pull us into a nightmare movie state, and his best recent films, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, play like genre movies with something extra. Cosmopolis is maybe too extra. Too obviously serious. But it’s smart and well-done and worth a trip, even if Pattinson is a little over his head.

When he makes films like Cosmopolis and A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg is sometimes attacked for lacking humanity — as if his earlier films like Rabid and They Came from Within weren’t cold as well. But that’s the type of story he tells, or does best. Cosmopolis, at its best, is an audacious show. But it works, though the movie needed a stronger script, a stronger or more versatile lead and some darker humor.  And, of course, a little ventilation.

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2 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: Cosmopolis”

  1. Joe Stemme says:

    It’s a pretty fair viewpoint overall. I won’t claim it’s a Cronenberg classic, but, it’s far better than the general critical consensus. I think of it as a sort of ‘spriritual sequel’ to CRASH, which was similarly cold and fetishistic.

    The one area I would disagree with Wilmington (who I’ve been reading since his L.A. days!), is that it was only “budget” reasons that led Cronenberg to setting much of the film within the Limo. I think it was an artistic choice – and a superb one. You ARE supposed to feel claustrophobic, just like the Pattinson character lives his life.

  2. Max says:

    Cronenberg sure knows how to provide a sense of unease that’s captivating. For some scenes I was either slightly cringing, wringing my fingers, or tempted to look away, yet my attention remained glued to the screen. The tight quarters did not bother me much but it does make me wonder how someone who is truly claustrophobic would react to it. Perhaps some of those that walked out were.

    I think Pattinson brought a certain relatable awkwardness to an otherwise too polished Packer. DiCaprio, Bale, or Farrell may have the experience to bring to the table but they are also a few years older than what Packer is supposed to be, which makes Pattinson’s (though a couple years younger) casting more believable for the character.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon