Reviewed by: David Graham

David Cronenberg's long and distinguished career has taken many pleasing diversions - not least into meta-literary adaptation with Naked Lunch and pulpy crime violence with recent hits A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises - but even for his diehard devotees, last year's A Dangerous Method was something of a let-down. Purporting to probe the sexually charged relationship between Freud, Jung and their muse, the resulting film won art-house plaudits but proved too languid and impassive for many. On the surface (admittedly never something to be trusted with Cronenberg), Don DeLillo's wilting, wordy prose would seem a perfect fit for the Canadian auteur, so the scathing 2003 novel Cosmopolis could have been as darkly invigorating a venture as his Nineties take on JG Ballard's taboo-busting Crash. Coupled with a career-redefining central turn from Twilight pin-up Robert Pattinson, Cosmopolis should have been one of 2012's sure things; instead, it limps on to the screen with an audience-baiting single-mindedness.

Eric Packer is a 28-year-old multi-billionaire whose success has seen him become a target for anti-corporate protesters; he cruises NYC from his ivory (tower) limousine, occasionally receiving visits from self-deprecatingly promiscuous ladies, awestruck business associates and dutiful doctors for whom his entirely unnecessary daily prostrate check is merely another chore. On a mission for a haircut that might help him reconnect with his own humanity, something inside Eric snaps, and he finds himself adrift in the world he has created. Taking to the streets - perhaps on a search for his own soul - Eric finds his perspective challenged by everyone he comes across, leading him on a nihilistic quest to find some - any - kind of new feeling.

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Don't be fooled by the judicious use of Drive-style neon and gleaming cinematography; despite the vaguely futuristic setting, everything about Cosmopolis is deliberately drab. Cronenberg has always been clinical but this latest work is like a slab of meat that the audience is expected to dissect. The problem is, it's all too clear that there's nothing new to be found beneath the skin. Much of the first half takes place inside Packer's eerily sound-proofed limousine, overtaken by pedestrians as it creeps down gridlocked streets; Cronenberg's rarely moving camera strives for claustrophobia but merely elicits boredom.

The threat to Packer's life is never developed into anything but a background nuisance, while his many encounters - mostly one-on-one with individuals who never appear again - quickly become routine, and make a poor substitute for a narrative. It's almost as if the film has been assembled from overlong deleted scenes, with little to nothing to tie them together; while this is obviously meant to reflect Packer's own existence, it makes for a thankless and tiresome viewing experience. There's no escaping the fact that Mary Harron's adaptation of American Psycho did all of this and more over ten years ago and managed to squeeze real humour and humanity (not to mention admirably controlled horror) out of the by-now cliched notion of yuppie ennui.

The majority of the run-time is taken up by people ranting about the state of the modern world in loosely connected statements that would have felt radical 20 years ago but are depressingly obvious by now. When the 'characters' make (often futile) attempts to have actual conversations, the script sparks into some kind of life, sardonic wit flashing through in their failure to connect. But Cronenberg's static direction could really do with a little more life about it; as Pattinson descends further into a mind-frazzling black hole, the audience could use some stimulus to convey his disintegrating state. Cosmopolis's second half covers alot of the same ground as A Scanner Darkly but a dose of something like Richard Linklater's immersive if indulgent visual aesthetic wouldn't have gone amiss, while the satire is spread so thin as to hardly be worth the wait when the script does sarcastically strive to raise an eventual titter.

Pattinson's scowly performance is perfect for the material, but as Packer's dark night of the soul reaches critical mass, he never quite seems disturbed enough to pull the viewer along on his journey. Even when his masochism turns deadly, Pattinson is an impressive rather than powerful presence, often put in the shade by his fleeting co-stars. Most of the film consists of ever-reliable thesps - from Juliette Binoche to Samantha Morton - pairing up with the young Brit to ruminate at length on topics that only one of them (usually Packer) understands, with the ignorant parties desperate to prove their worth to the unreachable, barely responsive bureaucrat. The theatrical staging proves a little more engaging when the tables are turned by the anarchic types of Mathieu Amalric and Paul Giamatti, with the friction between the opposing forces leading to some tersely amusing ruffling of feathers from the former and an intensely vengeful showdown with the latter.

There's plenty to chew on here but little flavour to savour; most of the minimally-soundtracked 'action' takes place in a series of vacuums, and will leave many viewers (especially Twi-hards) feeling frustrated and cheated, more so if they've been duped into watching by the ridiculously misleading trailer. While Pattinson is to be commended for taking on such an un-commercial vehicle - to which he definitely does no disservice - it all seems a bit too calculated, more posturing than penetrating. Likewise, for some of his long-time fans, it's saddening to see Cronenberg digging himself a hole of late with such critic-pleasing but crowd-bewildering tepidity; perhaps his perverse plans to remake his own remake of The Fly (a Cronenbergian gesture in itself) will see him return to former glories.

Reviewed on: 16 Jun 2012
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Cosmopolis packshot
Chance encounters threaten to tear a billionaire's life apart as he travels across Manhattan.
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Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: David Cronenberg, based on the book by Don DeLillo

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Sarah Gadon, Paul Giamatti, Samantha Morton, Mathieu Amalric

Year: 2012

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France, Canada, Portugal, Italy


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