Cronenberg film provokes and stirs

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If there’s been an overriding theme in the films released this summer (and these past few years), it’s been the economy. Scenes regarding the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor, the vast waves of unemployment and the ineptitude of the government have infiltrated even the most seemingly shallow of summer movies. From the struggling strippers in “Magic Mike” to the oppressive government in the recent “Total Recall” revamp to the high-profile class conflict witnessed in “The Dark Knight Rises,” money, to paraphrase Snoop Dogg (Lion), is on people’s minds. And yet, despite this omnipresence, David Cronenberg’s cinematic treatise on wealth, “Cosmopolis,” feels like nothing seen before.

Based on Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, the world of “Cosmopolis” is one we should all be wholly familiar with. It’s set in a more or less contemporary New York City. Throngs of workers hustle along the cramped city sidewalks; mom-and-pop diners serve ham on rye to suited businessmen on break; the bold yellow of taxicabs permeates the screen. However, we don’t see this first-hand. For the majority of “Cosmopolis,” the audience views the exterior through the tinted (and corked, to buffer sound) windows of a stretch white limousine. And inside, there’s Robert Pattinson as 28-year-old tycoon Eric Packer.

Here is where I  would detail the plot of the film, but it wouldn’t be worth your time. Even Pattinson himself stated, on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” last week, that describing the story is “physically impossible.” Suffice it to say, Pattinson’s character spends the day going in and out (though, mostly in) of his elaborate limo, complete with its own heart monitor. He meets his estranged newlywed wife (Sarah Gadon), he eats, he fucks an older woman (Juliette Binoche), he eats, he meets with his theoretical advisor (Samantha Morton), he fucks a younger woman, he eats and, then, he gets his hair cut. Naturally, that’s not all that happens. There is a somewhat climactic showdown in the end, but it is not high-stakes action that Cronenberg is concerned with.

“Cosmopolis” is a film about interiority — literally, given the claustrophobic limo setting. In lengthy soliloquies and even more lengthy discussions, Cronenberg crafts what is as close to a novel on film as anything of late. The actors, particularly Morton, speak in a clipped, highly stylized phrases, taken straight from the book, as they wax philosophic on matters financial, social and existential: Is this the end of the world? What does modernity mean? What does anything mean?

Like most Cronenberg films, the tone is somber, detached and mordant. Pattinson’s previous work as a vampire comes in handy here as he plays Eric Packer like one of the living dead. He thrives in a role that requires limited expression and ultimate cool. However, the work wears thin after the seventh or eighth mention of the current crises in contemporary society. The dialogue, though somewhat provocative, becomes, like the film, rather trite.

During Samantha Morton’s scene, where she counsels Pattinson’s character on the intricacies of modern theory, they pass a man who has lit himself on fire in protest. “Not original,” she says. It’s true. Monks did this in opposition to the Vietnam War years ago.  Morton’s right. But her statements also speak for Cronenberg’s film. It’s not original. These themes have been covered. This crisis of the unsatisfied wealthy man has been seen before — particularly in “American Psycho,” the close, though somewhat more comedic cousin to this movie. I mentioned earlier that “Cosmopolis” feels like nothing seen before, and I maintain that. Certain phrases may sound like those from other films, specific set pieces may appear similar to others, but Cronenberg’s singular vision and Pattinson’s eerie performance do make this film bizarrely unique. Like the monk on fire, it’s a slow burn you can’t stop watching.