My review of David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” Cosmopolis is a highly stylized, visually complex movie that demands some humility on the part of the viewer. Go in with an arms crossed, "show me" attitude and you're likely to tune out within the first 10 minutes. Be generous with your patience and be rewarded with writer/director David Cronenberg's deliciously creative interpretation of the Don DeLillo novel so prescient of the events it portrays almost a decade after its publication.

As it is my policy to keep my reviews spoiler-free, especially with a film like this which is so dependent on suspension of disbelief and delightfully unexpected turns, it's necessary for me to be a bit circumspect in my synopsis. Viewers who wish to know more about the plot can certainly find that information elsewhere. Robert Pattinson portrays Eric Packer, 28, a ridiculously wealthy entrepreneur and modern-day Andrew Carnegie who trades in ideas instead of steel. Like many contemporary hedge fund managers, day traders, and consumers who constantly check the value of the dollar on their cellphones, his income comes from speculation -- not much different than betting on which horse will come in first at Churchill Downs. Packer's current obsession is the Chinese Yuan, the unit of currency expected to dominate world markets in the near future (it was changed from the Japanese Yen in DeLillo's book -- some creative license on Cronenberg's part). Cosmopolis opens with him instructing bodyguard Torval (Kevin Durand) to usher him across town (New York, but it could be any metropolis) to get a haircut. With most scenes based on visitors entering the vehicle, it's an inside-out take on the classic road movie that takes place in one 24-hour period.

Frustrated at his inability to get a handle on the Yuan's odd elusive values, Packer brings in a succession of his firm's top experts to advise him. His "office" is a white stretch limo, no different on the outside from the hundreds which roam the streets of New York, but quite unique for those lucky few invited to step inside where the enigmatic multi-millionaire holds court from his leather throne. On occasion, he steps out of his domain for some possible dalliances with Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon), his wife of 22 days. There's much more here than meets the eye, though, and that cuts to the heart of what Cosmopolis is trying to say. The narrative appears to wander at the outset but crystallizes with chilling clarity. Its level of comprehension is directly proportional to the degree of openness with which the viewer approaches the material.

Despite the apparent gravitas of the story, Cosmopolis is a dark comedy. This may surprise some, in that, "Am I supposed to be laughing here?" sort of way. The veiled wit and literate sarcasm is apparent right from the start. Gallows humor pops out even at the most awkward moments. This follows seamlessly from DeLillo's book to Cronenberg's adaptation to the actors' insightful interpretations of the material. They "got it." Hopefully viewers will, as well.

Cronenberg and longtime Director of Photography Peter Suschitzky (this is their ninth feature together, going back to 1988's Dead Ringers) have crafted a sumptuous cornucopia of sensual cinematography that, at first, challenges then caresses the viewer in its afterglow. This is their first time shooting digitally (they used the Arri Alexa system) and the resultant images are authentically alive one moment, curiously etheral the next.

Again, without giving too much away, many technical elements -- lighting, color palette, sound, score -- change subtly as the film (and Eric's odyssey) progresses. The limo interior shots which dominate the early part of Cosmopolis are bathed in white, Packer's pale face almost glowing from within, the digital photography revealing every last pore on his pasty cheeks. His domain is sterile, virtually devoid of color save for the frenetic graphics flying by on the furniture's ubiquitous built-in screens. Cronenberg made the bold decision to eliminate almost all ambient sound in these scenes (or, more accurately, not add any). There's no engine rumble, no road noise, no sounds of the city that never sleeps working their way in. It's as if all the dialogue was done in ADR -- in a studio in post-production -- or as though we are hearing only what Eric hears in his head.

There are very few two shots in these limo sequences. Rarely are Eric and his guest in the same frame. This was partly due to the constraints of shooting in such a confined space, but serves as an effective device in illustrating the separation between Packer and his employees. Most shots are closeups and reverse angles, bouncing back and forth between one character or the other, with many high angles as the camera is placed near the ceiling and we look down on Eric's world. As the narrative progresses we see more people in frame, particularly in the exterior locations which increase in frequency and duration throughout Eric's haircut mission.

Cronenberg keeps much of his creative team together, as with Suschitzky. Editor Ronald Sanders joined him for the first time on 1981's Scanners. This is their 14th feature together. This clearly allows for an economy of thought that brings the director's vision into the earliest cuts. A similar shorthand is at play with composer Howard Shore, who's also worked with Cronenberg on 14 films, beginning with The Brood in 1979. His original score, performed by Metric, sets a nonspecific tone that gives Cosmopolis a somewhat timeless quality. The limo's sci-fi, spaceship-like interior oddly contrasts with the present-day appearance of the Toronto-for-New York exteriors, and Cronenberg's creative team helps make the transitions less jarring. Much credit for that goes to Production Designer Arvinder Grewal, who's been with the director since 1996's Crash, and Art Director Joshu de Cartier, who used several Toronto locations, New York landscapes for background green screen inserts, and constructed an entire replica of 47th Street in the Pinewood Toronto studios. Costume Designer Denise Cronenberg had the deceptively easy task of creating one costume per character (deceptive because it better be right since that's all you'll see).

The cast of characters which comes in and out of Eric Packer's limo, as well as those he meets on the outside, is filled with Cronenberg alumni and Canadian talent, along with many international veterans. All are impressive in their often brief but essential encounters. Jay Baruchel, Philip Nozuka, Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, Emily Hampshire, Bob Bainborough, Mathieu Amalric, Patricia McKenzie, Zeljko Kecojevic, Abdul Ayoola, George Touliatos, and Sufi rapper K'Naan, who also contributed essential music to the soundtrack, all have limited screen time but represent significant moments in the plot's progression and perform to that appropriately demanding level. Many were flown in from overseas for just a couple of days, including Binoche and French icon Amalric. Then there's Paul Giamatti as Benno Levin, whose extensive exchange with Pattinson is one of the standout dialogues of the year.

The aforementioned Pattinson, Gadon, and Durand are the triumvirate which is a constant throughout most of the film. Always at Packer's side, Torval is both protector and father figure to the affluent boy king. His almost-robotic yet endearing performance (praise here, not disdain) takes quite a bit of discipline, resulting in what may be the most sympathetic of the leads. Gadon also has the unenviable task of "dumbing down" for this role as a cold, unemotional trophy wife. Her talent and beauty shine through but only just enough to convince us of Packer's decision to include her in his life. Finally, as the somewhat reluctant son around whom the rest of Packer's solar system revolves, Pattinson's delicately understated performance improves in inverse proportion to the state of Eric's personality as it evolves. It's an acquired taste. It means, by definition, the viewer needs to follow along to fully appreciate what he does here. Many won't get that far, and that would be a shame. Few actors of his generation would be able to take on such a nuanced role and make it believable. The selection of Pattinson, in taking on the challenge of playing an uncharacteristically unsympathetic protagonist, was a coup for Cronenberg and the performance which helps make Cosmopolis a stunning creative accomplishment.

I generally do not reference other titles in my reviews, especially previous works of the filmmakers or cast, as it assumes the readers have seen them (not to mention it smacks of self-indulgence on the part of the writer). But it's unlikely viewers will be unaware of the star's longtime role as vampire Edward Cullen in The Twilight Saga's five films. Comparisons will inevitably be made and some may go into Cosmopolis with preconceived notions about Pattinson's talents (one way or the other). My recommendation is the same as for any movie. As difficult as it is, try to be objective. Wipe the slate clean. Give the filmmakers and cast a fair shot by setting aside expectations. You owe them that much. For those who do, and for those who don't need to, you just may have a provocative experience that is all-too-rare in modern cinema. The deeper mysteriously metaphorical meanings of this movie are elusive yet undeniable. Cosmopolis is a film that has so much to say, on so many levels, that you'll find yourself rewriting the story in your head long after the end credits have rolled. And that's what art is all about.


Author

Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at Larry411.com

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  • Author: Larry Richman
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