"You should have listened to your body,” murmurs Paul Giamatti during the freakazoid finale of David Cronenberg’s astonishing adaptation of Don DeLillo’s (ahem) difficult novel. In what amounts to a deliciously sick joke at the expense of Twi-hards everywhere, Robert Pattinson stars as Eric Packer, a zombified billionaire dulled to the world and cruising across the island of Manhattan at a glacial pace in a limousine that feels more like a cocoon. Thanks to some bad predictions regarding the Chinese yuan, Eric’s financial empire is disintegrating into ruins over the course of this no-good, very bad day. The president is in town, and there’s a celebrity funeral, leaving midtown traffic snarled at a standstill. Protesters are tearing up the streets, and an ominous security advisor informs us of a credible threat on our protagonist’s life. Yet, Eric still insists on going out and getting a haircut.
So dense you can hardly take it all in with just a single viewing, Cosmopolis is the first screenplay Cronenberg penned himself since 1999’s Existenz. Though most of the dialogue is almost verbatim from DeLillo’s book, it’s all imbued with the same dreamy, space-shot, mordantly funny deadpan of the director’s Crash and Naked Lunch—a very wry, exquisitely Canadian sense of impending doom.
Cronenberg deliberately flattens out the film with Brechtian distancing devices. Eric’s limo is a massive soundstage (complete with both a retractable urinal and a throne) where the chaos of the outside world is glimpsed only through old-timey rear-projection shots in tinted windows. The digital cinematography compresses depth of field to a point where characters often look like cardboard cut-outs, and startling edits do little to clue us in as to whether supporting players are coming or going.
Cosmopolis is an ice-cold, woozy nightmare of a movie. The sleek limousine becomes a sort of purgatory, as Eric rides ever-forward at less than 5 mph toward ruin. He fucks, drinks, kills and even treats himself to an epically invasive prostate exam—any opportunity to jolt himself from this all-encompassing numbness, an emotional state at which Pattinson naturally excels. Great casting.
Like all the best Cronenberg pictures, Cosmopolis is a pitch-black comedy about man’s foolhardy attempt to impose systems of order on nature’s chaos. For all the slick, shiny surfaces and shimmering 1 percent luxuries, the key here is Eric’s “asymmetrical prostate,” which metaphorically stands in for the arbitrary randomness of an indifferent universe. He really should have listened to his body, and the irony is not lost on Cronenberg that the moral of this story can be found in Eric Packer’s asshole.